JENN SHAW'S MY FELLOW ORGANIZERS. PHOTO BY: BRAD NORRIS
With no political connections in Chicago, or anywhere for that matter, director Jenn Shaw reached out to the Barack Obama campaign in the hopes of documenting the Obama Organizing Fellows, a unique six-week training program that would “train a new generation of leaders” through community organizing and grassroots canvassing. “I knew no one at the campaign, I‘m not a politico, but I was intrigued by the movement more than Barack himself,” recalls Shaw, who had studied film as an undergrad at NYU‘s Tisch School of the Arts and was heading a music Web site company. “I contacted everyone in Chicago, but no one got back to me,” she says. But suddenly, three weeks before the program began on June 14, she got a call from Kate Albright-Hanna, the director of the program: She could film as a volunteer, with no pay, and she could have the rights to the film if the campaign could use the footage.
Suddenly Shaw was shooting her very first feature, alone, armed with only a 24p Panasonic camera and no crew. Fascinated by a unique tale she would discover was quite common amongst the Obama Fellows: stories of genuine inspiration lived by people who had never been inspired before. She was given the option of shooting in Colorado, Atlanta and Pennsylvania, and ultimately decided upon Pennsylvania due to its breadth of “political history and corruption.” Scraping together money to get by, she spent six months in Pennsylvania covering the program. “It was so hard,” Shaw remembers. “Some days I really was on my last dime. Now that I look back I have no idea how I made it.”
Once in Pennsylvania, she quickly shifted her focus from documenting the suburban area to filming the urban area, including West Philly, as she came to realize “there was nothing at stake [in the suburbs] compared to the urban issues.... For the people in the urban areas, [the election] was a must-win because of issues like healthcare. I remember this moment with one of the organizers named Jonta, who was on the side of the road with a homeless older woman who was saying how her life was over and that Obama would never change things for her. I think that was the moment when I truly understood the urgent need for hope in the community.”
The younger activists in the program quickly became Shaw‘s focus: “For the first two months, there were 150 to 200 fellows. At the six-week point, some got picked to be staff. I settled in with those who got picked. They worked more than 12 hours a day, listening, watching, taking notes, getting people registered, canvassing, knocking on people‘s doors, trying to persuade.... Thirty days before voting, they were trained on how to talk to people about the issues.” While the young fellows almost immediately became comfortable with Shaw‘s presence, she could never avoid the tension of those “moments that aren‘t positive, like when people got fired for not meeting requirements.”
The film, tentatively titled, My Fellow Organizers, is ultimately about these young fellows, not the now President-Elect. Distinct from Amy Rice and Alicia Sams‘s upcoming untitled Obama documentary, which was recently acquired by HBO and presents a more comprehensive overview of Barack Obama‘s rise to the presidency, Shaw‘s gaze remains riveted on the young Obama activists that fought for him on the ground. “I learned a lot about people and — it‘s cliché — how fortunate we are. The generation that everyone thought was lost and that didn‘t care? I met so many people who made that not true at all. It is their experiences, their goofy or gossipy or serious personalities, their ups and downs, their honesty that sets the tone for this film.”
After shooting Obama‘s inauguration, Shaw hopes to wrap up the final cut of the movie by May 2009 and hold screenings of the film through a university tour. She hopes to instill in the college-age generation the understanding that “volunteering is hard and is needed, and that we really need to build a structure where communities can build neighbor to neighbor networks to be aware of the issues they face.” With no political connections or film crew or films to her credit or funding, Jenn Shaw embarked on her documentary with the same question Barack Obama may have asked himself at the beginning of his campaign: “Why not...and why not me?”