Three Women Take On Dysfunctional Democracy in “Capturing the Flag”
How a day spent monitoring polling stations in Fayetteville, NC, in 2016 became a documentary essay on the precarious state of the cornerstone democratic principle of “one person, one vote.”
Two Duke students, Carly Mirabile (Class of 2019) and Melanie Hogue (Class of 2018) dove into this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival with a press pass in their hands—read on for their interview with the team behind Capturing the Flag.
We constantly hear about the importance of exercising our right to vote, but after the 2016 election cycle, with all the talk of voter suppression and gerrymandering and hacking, we had to wonder—do our votes really matter? When we were invited to cover a film at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, we thought Capturing the Flag might help us answer that question, and it did. It is a film every young adult needs to see. At a time when people across the nation are wondering how they can make a difference, this film says, yes, you can—here are some steps you can take.
Going to Full Frame with a press pass representing Duke Students of the World was an incredible experience that we will never forget. We were able to view several inspiring films and meet some remarkable filmmakers. In our conversation with the three co-producers of Capturing the Flag—Anne de Mare, Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, and Laverne Berry—we were struck by how organically they came together to create this film.
It started when Berry—an attorney who was working with Hemmerdinger on another film—mentioned that she and a few friends had signed up to be election observers in Cumberland County, NC. Hemmerdinger brought this up with her friend, de Mare, who is a documentary film director—they’ve known each other since they were teenagers, when they did theater together. Pretty soon Berry’s election-day plans had expanded to include a film crew. What started as a story about the volunteer work of a friend grew into a powerful film about the very important, but very hard, work of democracy.
First, can you tell us what first drew you to documentary film as a medium?
Anne de Mare (AM): I actually made my first documentary film sort of by mistake. I had been working in the theater for many years as a playwright, and I was working with a director named Kirsten Kelly, who came from the self-proclaimed asparagus capital of the universe in rural Michigan. We were thinking we would make a piece of theater about her home town’s asparagus festival but when we got there, we realized that the extraordinary thing about it was that it was all real, and that if we fictionalized it, we would be making fun of it. So we thought, lets make a documentary film. [Asparagus! Stalking the American Life premiered at Full Frame in 2006.]
You have a story, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth Hemmerdinger (EH): When my granddaughters were born fourteen years ago, they ended up in neonatal intensive care. I’m not religious, but I found I was having a conversation with God, begging first that my granddaughters were going to be okay, then I thought, no, I have to beg for everyone, and then I thought, no, that’s not enough, I have to find a way to tell a story about any kids who end up in circumstances that are unexpected and how to handle them. That became a film, Perfectly Normal For Me, that came out just a few months ago.
Laverne Berry (LB): I started my career working within public television, as a producer, but somewhere along the way producing things and distributing them became more and more complicated. So I had a crazy idea, quite late, that I would go back to school and become a lawyer, but the only thing that I would work for would be media projects or media law, because I think that sometimes, creating the contracts and clearing the way forward is actually, partially, producing.
I happened to be Elizabeth’s lawyer on the film that she was talking about, about the children. And I was saying to her, look, we have to finish this film because I have to go and do some voter protection work. A few days after I told her that, she asked me if she could follow along. That’s how we got to this particular film.
Can you tell us about the process? It sounds like it was much faster than usual.
AM: When we started out, we planned to make a ten or fifteen minute piece about civic engagement and how to be involved in democracy. But the stories we encountered on election day, and events since then—especially around voting and voting rights and gerrymandering and election law—really compelled us to make a much longer, deeper, more complicated film.
One of the things that I love about documentary, which is also frustrating about documentary, is that you have to tell the story that opens to you. Sometimes that’s not exactly the story that you set out to tell. We were really fortunate because Elizabeth had tremendous faith in the project. Having her as producer gave us the space to see how deep of a film we had, to understand that the material from election day was not just a story about looking back, but a story about looking forward.
Who are you hoping this documentary will reach? And how accessible do you think it will be to different audiences?
LB: I hope that the documentary reaches just ordinary people, so that they can say, “What? That’s really going on?” And then they’ll say, “I need to do something to help.” The film shows that with just a little effort you can be helpful to someone else, and I think that’s a good lesson.
EH: I think it’s very accessible to long-time voters and also to people who have chosen to opt out, for whatever reason. I think it’s going to shock them into understanding how important every vote is. We’ve seen a little bit of that with these young people from Parkland—when you listen to them, they talk about the vote, and that’s how democracies are set up to change.
Our American democracy is fairly dysfunctional now—either side will command, or even steal, as much of the vote as they can, which is why we call our film Capturing The Flag. For the political professionals, it’s kind of a game of who can take the most territory. And what we want is for the most citizens to vote, to have their voices heard.
How are you feeling about this stage in the process, now that you’re at Full Frame?
EH: It feels great. It’s a huge honor—we’ve landed in documentary film heaven.
AM: Definitely. Full Frame has the most amazing audiences and some of the most incredible programming. It was our very first choice for where this film would open, so the fact that we’re opening here is a dream come true. But to answer your question about what we’re feeling, the other piece is that we’re trying to get the resources together to cut an hour-long educational version of the film.
EH: Community organizations are asking for it already.
Can you explain more about distribution?
LB: Distribution is always a complicated thing. You want to go to film festivals to raise awareness. Then for a film like this, you want to see if there’s a broadcast outlet that might show your film. Then you want to make sure to get the film to the audiences that can use it, especially for a film like this. That means partnering with organizations that are interested in getting people out to vote or interested in registration. For each of those distribution outlets, you need a slightly different version. And for schools, you want to put together companion work to deepen the story. So it’s really fabulous that we’re here at Full Frame, but we’re not done.
Our final question is, what advice do you have for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
AM: I think the thing is to tell the stories that fascinate you, more than anything else. There’s a great line from the playwright Maria Irene Fornés, who said that your job as a writer is to become intimate with your own sense of imagination and your own curiosity. I think that really is the best advice, to understand the stories that you’re interested in hearing as much as the stories that you’re interested in telling.
LB: That’s really inspirational. Of course, as the lawyer, I would say something that would make you cringe…
EH: Make us cringe, then!
LB: Well, I agree with all of that—you have a passion to tell a particular story and you should follow that passion. But I would caution that a lot of times, because filmmaking is a business—as much as you might not like it—you have to deal with the business that surrounds the storytelling. That doesn’t mean that you cater to the business, necessarily, but you have to recognize the business and how it goes forward.
Three days after we had this conversation, we entered Fletcher Hall for the screening of Capturing the Flag and found Berry in the lobby handing out buttons she had been making doing our interview. After receiving our proper hugs, we pinned on our buttons, feeling grateful for the hard work by these three inspiring women.
Carly Mirabile (Class of 2019) is studying Religious Studies at Duke with a passion for the arts. Raised in Oklahoma, she draws on a diverse background of studies and experience, ranging from dance, theater, fashion, visual art, marketing, and mixed media, to both inform her work and create a more nuanced exploration of visual media. Through her studies and extracurriculars (President, Duke Students of the World), she intends to explore how art and forms of expression complicate the distinctions between the sacred and profane, the secular and the spiritual.
Melanie Hogue (Class of 2018) majored in English, minored in Economics, and earned a certificate in the Arts of the Moving Image. She has cultivated a unique perspective through her multifaceted educational path, extracurricular activities, and cultural background. She often credits her own cultural upbringing in South Florida—a mix of traditional American customs, her father’s French Canadian heritage, and her mother’s Peruvian traditions—for the diversity she pursued in her own studies.
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Photos by Carly Mirabile