I guess what set me off on a course of independent political media was a combination of Bush I & Bush II, 13 years apart.
In high school, while I was immersed in journalism and theater, the Gulf War crystallized an understanding in me that there is a larger war machine in this country that outlasts sitting presidents, and that reality needed to be shared through mainstream entertainment somehow. That time also got me into organizing anti-war demonstrations, public speaking at events, and networking with activists.
After the rampant election fraud that transpired in the Ohio 2004 presidential election, I felt I had no choice but to do my small part to become the media. The miraculous new era of digital video and social media didn’t make citizen journalism possible, but mandatory.
I think the 2004 election was a biggie for a lot of people. You might have felt that you had no choice but how did you actually get started as a citizen journalist?
At first, I got into online communities like Democratic Underground and Brad Blog, and started trying to post videos of news I recorded or pieces I edited that were mashed up with commentary. At that point, there was no YouTube, so just being able to get video online for people who were starting to get involved meant something to me. But then I felt the need to tell a bigger story, one that could tie in everything I saw that was going wrong from this election theft in Ohio. I got it together to go to Ohio and started interviewing people about the elections, from the mainstream Republicans to the far-Left activists.
While I was there, I was compelled by the amount of evidence of polling place malfunction, but the lack of awareness about it. I started to think about how to at least discourage it, if not prevent it. I thought about getting people to videotape at polling places throughout Ohio on Election Day so that everybody would know what happened. I asked Bob Fitrakis of the Columbus Free Press to help me out, and he invited me to a conference he was hosting with Jesse Jackson about this time in 2006, “Creating Connections for Change” — an appropriate theme.
At that event, I met Ian Inaba, the filmmaker of the documentary American Blackout* and the Eminem Mosh video. As an admirer of his work, I approached him with my hopes for filming at the polls, and it was an idea he was also looking to realize by Election Day. We created VideotheVote.org, a national effort to train volunteers to shoot problems at polling places on election day, and then upload their reports to YouTube while the polls were still open so that people could see the problems and do something about it.
Between Ian and his partner James Rucker, they had technical infrastructure abilities I could only dream of. I was able to bring what I knew–shooting and editing–to develop a work flow for taping at the polling place, author guidelines for shooting and interviewing for volunteers, organize VTV crews in different parts of Ohio, and edited online promos. The first VTV promo I cut was placed on the homepage of YouTube, to my astonishment. As the views multiplied, our ranks grew, and then suddenly the mainstream media started covering us heavily in the final week before the 2006 election.
As the media coverage of our effort spread, so did our volunteers–and thus, so did the reports of polling place malfunctions on Election Day in 2006. The experience showed me the power of an idea and how many people can feel the same way I do, and to not be afraid to put yourself out there when it’s something you really believe in. It also showed me that election justice is an ongoing effort demanding vigilance, and this was only the beginning of a long fight.
And you continue to do your part, in the eternal vigilance department. Tell us about Free for All!
I went to Ohio in 2006 to explore what happened there in the 2004 election. Besides chronicling the rampant voter suppression that occurred under Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, I also followed his bid for Ohio governor and the elections across the state.
I met a number of really promising candidates who didn’t make headway because of money, the media, and party politics.
I realized there were two major obstacles to our elections: getting the ballots counted, as well as getting the names on the ballot of the most qualified candidates.
My Ohio Odyssey was broken into two films: FREE FOR ALL! One Dude’s Quest to Save Democracy and PAY 2 PLAY Democracy’s High Stakes.
Can you tell us more about these two films?
FREE FOR ALL examines voter suppression, election fraud, and vote hacking while offering ways to take back our elections.
PAY 2 PLAY explores Citizens United, the barriers to newcomer candidates, and ways to reclaim our campaigns from the highest bidder.
Both of these documentaries are essay films about what I learned from traveling throughout Ohio, the bellwether state for America’s political mindset. There is humor inherent in the storytelling and some of the crazy things that really happened.
Because of its controversial subject, FREE FOR ALL was condensed data and first-hand evidence detailing massive effort to suppress voters and subvert elections. The credibility was important, as was maintaining a nonpartisan tone.
With PAY 2 PLAY, I wanted to broaden the reach of a political documentary beyond the people who normally see such films. So I incorporated Monopoly to convey the trials that candidates face running for office, because so many relate to it. After I started following the work of a street artist named Alec Monopoly who decorated Los Angeles with Monopoly Man artwork, I recognized similarities with campaigning — putting your name up all over town, getting attention and sharing your message. Now there is a significant look at street art as political expression in the film.
Sounds great, John. How’s it going getting some attention for the films? Where and how can people see them?
We released FREE FOR ALL independently and got a lot of attention because it was the buildup to the 2008 election. But the thing is about keeping elections safe, it’s a year-round duty. Election day is already too late in some ways to make sure the truth is known and the votes are counted. The film is now on iTunes.
PAY 2 PLAY will also be a grassroots release likely, because it is important to get this out during the primaries, so people start to harness the disproportionate amount of power the primary process has. Between some of the drama in this film which is worthy of reality TV and the exploding street art culture, I think PAY 2 PLAY will reach a broader audience who just love movies that take them somewhere. My goal is to bring the audience on a journey, and leave them with lessons and inspirations for what they can do. Movies might still be one of the most powerful mediums, and I am working to use all the tools in a film maker’s arsenal to make this a movie that you watch, love, and share.
Anything you’d like to add before we wrap this up, John?
You’re not alone. Documentaries, street art, blogging, it is all about getting your voice out there and discovering that many others feel like you. Together, we are going to reclaim our country.
Thanks so much for talking with me, John. It was a pleasure. Good luck with Pay 2 Play.
PAY 2 PLAY website: http://pay2play.tv
John Wellington Ennis: http://johnennis.tv
Public Interest Pictutres: http://publicinterestpics.org
*my 2007 review of American Blackout