Directed by Anne de Mare, Capturing the Flag tells the story of Election Day 2016 from the deeply personal perspective of a diverse team of volunteer voter protection workers in North Carolina that represents the final line of protection for each American citizen’s right to vote. Though they are faced with challenges from those associated directly with the political process, volunteer Laverne Berry and the rest of the team remain committed to ensuring that every person in their assigned areas has the opportunity to assert their civic duty. Although she didn’t understand the depth of the problem from the outset, de Mare quickly realized in the development of the film how widespread—and dangerous–that voter suppression really is.
“I really wanted to explore what it was like to be a citizen of conscience right now, and to talk about the role of the citizen,” de Mare remembers. “I didn’t understand going into the film how kind of insidious and pervasive modern-day voter suppression really was. It was a real education to me in the kinds of systemic cumulative barriers that we’ve placed in front of people trying to exercise their right to vote. So, for me, the inspiration originally came from a desire to talk about the power of being a citizen and the power of the vote.”
“When people talk about voter suppression, they often think that its one big thing, but what you have to realize is that elections are won on the state level…,” she claims. “When you ask ‘What is voter suppression and how has that come to be?’, there is a real history about this that goes back to the beginning of our country. The fact is that we recognized certain people as being more valuable and more equipped to be able to exercise the right to vote from the very beginning and that was men of means of a particular race. Then, we went through the civil war and, right afterwards, men of color were also recognized who had means. Then, it changed and it’s been a continual change all through the last 160 years of adding and subtracting and adding and subtracting.”
“And it takes lots of different forms… If you didn’t have enough money to be able to pay the fee, you weren’t able to vote,” reiterates team volunteer Laverne Berry (who also serves as the film’s producer). “It takes the form of where polling places are put, what kinds of voting equipment people get, how people get purged from the role, etc… In this particular film, what you see are little slices… Part of it, we’re never able to show because, even though Anne was just wonderful and had one crew, our volunteers were in four different places… When you think of voter suppression, you’re not thinking of one big thing. You’re thinking of many, many tiny things which changed county to county.”
While voter suppression is widespread throughout the country, it also remains a subject that few people are talking about at a government level. Although she wishes that it wasn’t a problem, De Mare is excited that the film sheds light on an important issue that goes largely ignored.
“It’s interesting because, that day, my whole crew and I remember [were] really, really torn,” notes de Mare. “We wanted everything to be going smoothly for everyone but we also wanted to be able to capture moments when it wasn’t. We didn’t want to find the film we found, in a strange way. I’m really glad that we were able to tell the story because voter suppression is really hard to put your finger on now. It isn’t the kind of overt methods that we were fighting per se in the civil rights movement back in the fifties and sixties but the results are really, really devastating.”
“I think that one of the things that I’m really happiest about the film is that you see all of these small things happen over the course of the day. You see people being asked to vote provisionally. You see people being moved from one place to another. You see registrations that have gone missing from the DMV, but it really isn’t until the end of the night when we’re at Cliffdale and that statistic comes up on the screen that shows you how many people were not able to vote that the size of [the issue] comes to you. It makes sense after everything you’ve seen. And yet you don’t understand that it’s that severe. That’s why we have to work really, really hard to guarantee people’s right to vote.”
Of course, with so many issues with voter suppression, the obvious question remains on how to fix a broken system. To Berry, there are any number of ways in which the government could work to correct its grievous error.
“I think [we need to] work towards having an automatic registration so that we don’t have these different registrations,” she begins. “Another thing could be for us to not hold on to a Tuesday voting day, which is a remnant of when farmers had to take their food to market and get back. [We could] have a voting day that was on the weekend or each state would have early voting at different times… People in this country needs to be able to have a way to get to the polls and be able to vote. I’ve had many times where I arrive at the polls… and the line is already two hours long. People are trying go to work. Voting days [could] become a national holiday that people get off.”
“We need to bring election reform… to the front and center of the way that we talk about politics,” De Mare echoes. “That we can do. We can put that pressure on our politicians, you know. I think that that’s super important. The other thing we can do as citizens [is] to be watchdogs and get involved. Anyone can do the kind of work that Laverne, Steve and Claire did, if they have the time and the ability. People can sign up to be paid poll workers with their local board of elections and be a conscious citizen who’s in there helping to make the system work… There are things that we can all do. The goal of voter suppression is to make people feel powerless, right? You hear constantly that your vote doesn’t matter. What that does is [to] discourages people from being involved. The truth of the matter is that there have been a number of incredibly high profile elections recently that has been decided by a handful of votes… Your vote does matter.”
One of the most remarkable things about the film is reliving the events of one of the craziest election nights in history. As the tone moves wildly from optimism to frustration and angst, the night left an indelible mark on De Mare and her team.
“I think no matter what you feel politically that night was one of those moments that you just don’t forget because it was shocking in many ways,” says De Mare. “Some people say it wasn’t shocking, but it definitely shifted the direction of the country. I think everyone has their own story about where they were that night and what they felt.”
“We may want Candidate A but, when we get to the end of the day, I shouldn’t be taking anything away from Candidate B…,” argues Berry. “That night, when we were in that small hotel room, we got to be the people with the hope that we have and the disappointment that we have. [Our feelings] still don’t [mean] that we shouldn’t be out there working for everyone. What I like about the way the film is structured is that that’s not the end because that’s not the end… That’s just part of the motivation for getting out there the next time. For example, Steve and I have never done work in the midterm the way we’ve done for the presidential election, but we’re doing it in the midterms this time. We saw enough on that day about how bad things were working and how much work needed to be done that we need to do it for the midterms.”
Nevertheless, regardless of the outcome, Berry believes that voting in and of itself remains an act of faith. When asked what she means by this, Berry stresses that every vote offers the chance for the voter to participate in building the type of nation that that they feel is most needed.
“People get up and they stand in those lines when they go into those booths because they believe that they are exercising their right to actually have a say in how they’re governed,” she answers. “If we continue to do things to undermine that, then then that faith will go away and we will have no democratic structure. So, rather than then screaming about voter fraud when there really isn’t any or screaming about having to tighten ID laws or all of these other things, what we should be doing is looking at the candidates, listening to their platforms and understand what they’re saying. Then, go in and make up your own mind because that’s what we want from our citizens.”
For full audio of our interview with director Anne de Mare and producer Laverne Berry, click here.
Capturing the Flag is currently in limited released.