Beyond Elections in the Americas: An Interview with Michael Fox
Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas: Produced by Michael Fox and Sílvia Leindecker. Purchase from PM Press
The new documentary Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas proves that democracy can and should be more than casting a ballot every four years. This empowering film gives hopeful and concrete examples from around the
In this interview, Michael Fox, Co-Producer of Beyond Elections, talks about how the film was created, what its aims were and what the films impact has had among viewers in the
Benjamin Dangl: How did you decide on the focus and message of Beyond Elections?
Michael Fox: I’ve been living and working in Latin America for many years, studying and reporting on, above all else, the experiences in participatory democracy- cooperatives, communal councils, participatory budgeting, social movements, community radio, etc… Sílvia (my wife, who grew up in Southern Brazil, and who is also Co-director of the film) and I were living in
In March of 2007, Sílvia and I found ourselves in Porto Alegre, Brazil – where we now live – at the same time that the 2007 Participatory Budgeting cycle was about to begin. We realized that although there have been many local videos on the experiences of participatory budgeting, cooperatives, social movements and even some on the recently-formed communal councils, there was no documentary film that tried to give both the big and local picture of these new participatory concepts of democracy across the hemisphere.
This concept is almost completely absent in the United States, and yet, it is absolutely necessarily for people to understand what is going on across Latin America, and also extremely important for activists and people in the United States to understand the failures of our own system and the lack of participation and input from everyday citizens.
We originally planned the film to focus only on participatory democracy, but quickly realized that the only people who would want to see it would be activists that are already doing this type of work. We needed to open it up to the very concept of democracy itself.
This was important to us, because time and again in the
There are some mainstream media that actually call Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez a dictator, despite the fact that during his ten years in office there have been more than a dozen free and fair elections in
Then the real question is, "What is democracy?" And that’s where we wanted to focus our attention – giving people the space to tell their stories across the Hemisphere.
As the Portuguese Sociologist Boaventura de Sousa
But Sousa Santos points out that in reality, democracy is a work in progress. As he says, "democracy without end."
His colleague, Leonardo Avritzer, professor from Brazilian Federal University of Minas Gerais, points out in our film, "What we've tried to stress, is the idea that democracy is an open concept and the frontiers of democracy are always imprecise. For instance, in the 19th century you could say that it's democratic to expand suffrage. And that's true. It was democratic at the end of the 19th century to expand suffrage to women. Or at the beginning of the 20th century it could appear democratic to expand democracy to the countries of the global South. So the question today in the Southern countries is how to think about the democratization of things like the budget, health policies, education policies, urban policies, the democratization of life where you live."
Of course, it’s not always easy. Especially when you are trying to make a film for not one audience, but audiences in various languages all across the Hemisphere. But that’s what we set out to do, and I think we succeeded.
BD: Could you talk a bit about the process of making your documentary?
MF: This is very important, because we wanted the making of the film to reflect as much as possible the "democracy" that we are trying to portray. We used very little narration- only about two and a half minutes worth –because we wanted people to tell the stories in their own words. We tried not to change the scenery where we were filming. We only used music from local musicians, and tried to only use it when it was part of the scene. It is also a testament to what two people can do without any external resources or really expensive equipment.
The entire budget came out of our own pockets and Silvia and I filmed nearly the entire film with our Panasonic 3CCD handycam, and edited it all on our aging G4 Powerbook.
Of course, we had more than a half a dozen individuals and groups that supported with b-roll, and either shot for us, or allowed us to use footage they had already filmed in areas that we couldn’t make it to like
The SF-based musician and sound editor, Ben Bernstein, donated his time to post-produce our audio, which came out great. The Venezuela-based film group, Panafilms was a huge support, as were hundreds of folks all across the region.
BD: What was the response among viewers during your tour in the
MF: We did our tour last fall from mid September straight through till two days before the 2008 Presidential elections. We drove from the East Coast to the West Coast and back, covering our costs with donations from the nearly two-dozen showings all across the
Without a doubt, the biggest and only major critique was that it was, and remains, a long documentary- just under two hours, which we’ll keep in mind for our next documentary. The DVD version of the movie is divided in to chapters, which can each stand alone, so it can easily be used in university and high school classrooms according to theme. The right hand side of the website, www.beyondelections.com has dozens of links to additional information, all also sorted according to the chapter and the theme.
We tried to build the film in order to give people an understanding of the realities, and also leave them with a sense of hope. Because these experiences anywhere; be it in Latin America or the United States, in the local government, the community, the office, the school or the home can only happen if we take the steps to open the democratic spaces of participation. This is the exciting thing about the film and I believe that people could feel it. The film gave people an idea about some of the things that are being done, and some of the things that they can also do. As Sílvia often said in our after-film discussions, "the best thing you can do to support these democratic experiences abroad is to make change in your own communities, attempt to open democracy in your own community." As a Brazilian, she knows the affect that this can have.
In our discussions after nearly all of our showings, we tried to stress this point; how we can open up these democratic experiences in our own lives. After numerous requests, we actually developed a "Beyond Elections Democracy Discussion Guide", which attempts to help people to do just that, Bring Democracy Home. It is also available to download halfway down the right-hand side of our website, under "Beyond Elections Materials."
And that is our job now- to spread the word about the film, and open up the space for democracy where wherever you are. As we wrote shortly after the 2008
Please let us know if you are interested in supporting Beyond Elections, finding out more, or setting up a showing in your own community. We would love to be able to support your local efforts.
For more information, visit www.BeyondElections.com
Benjamin Dangl is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia," and the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in