Elaine McMillion Sheldon is a Peabody award-winning documentary filmmaker, visual journalist and media artist who brings classic expertise to intimate and character-driven storytelling experiences. In 2013, she released Hollow, an interactive documentary that examines the future of rural America through the eyes and voices of Appalachians, which received a 2013 Peabody, 2014 Emmy nomination and 3rd Prize in the World Press Photo Multimedia Awards. She is also the co-creator of She Does, a bi-weekly audio documentary series that documents creative women’s journeys. Learn more about her work at her official website.
Talkhouse Film invited filmmakers who contributed to the forthcoming Election Day 2016 documentary 11/8/16 to share their experiences while making the film. Below are contributions by Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Martha Shane. 11/8/16 will be released later this year by The Orchard. — N.D.
Elaine McMillion Sheldon: For 11/8/16, I followed an underground miner in West Virginia. We met at 4 a.m. and traveled to the mine. I was going to be underground for an entire shift so I was suited up, having received safety training the day before.
Eric, the miner I was following, has been in the mines since he graduated from high school; he is now in his forties. He is a “fire boss,” which means he travels the belt lines underground and looks for any safety issues. He takes gas samples and rock dusts the mine to prevent any sparks and explosions. Unlike miners doing other jobs, fire bosses spend most of their day alone, or with one other person. So it was just Eric and I together all day. Him working, me trying not to injure myself while walking around in a dark, shallow mine with all my camera gear, and 30 pounds of mining safety equipment dangling off me. We ate lunch together, I asked dumb questions, he laughed, I filmed tons of coal plummeting out of this mine.
We were underground for his whole shift, then he went to the polling station with his youngest daughter. They both voted for Trump. We went back to his house and spent the rest of the night watching the results roll in with his wife, two daughters and son. They talked to me about the economic issues that guided their vote for Trump. They also noted that their vote was less for Trump and more against Clinton – in the end, they didn’t trust her as their leader.
I grew up in the coalfields of West Virginia. Nearly everyone in my family are miners or loggers. So I understand the struggle to make ends meet. I understand that rural America loses more people than it gains. That jobs are hard to come by, especially high-paying jobs like coal mining. But while I’m an insider in this region, I am also an outsider. I have left and returned. I have witnessed and experienced how other parts of this country and world function. What’s so frustrating is the lack of a long-term vision for my region. We’re stuck in the past because no leaders have shown a way out, a new way to not only survive but thrive. We’re fighting to keep coal, but coal has never been stable. My family moved 10 times before I was in 6th grade so my dad could keep mining jobs.
On the state and national level, politicians offer two options: keep what you have (coal), or lose what you have. What Clinton promised this region was no different than any previous politician, and Trump promised to bring back an industry that’s been in decline for decades.
The Daily Yonder put it nicely: “After all, Clinton’s standard Democratic formulas of job retraining and federal aid that launched the 50-year old War on Poverty and the Appalachian Regional Commission have turned out to leave the region today in the same relative position to the nation that it was a half century ago: at the bottom of the poorest. Trump’s vague proposals to make miners “proud” again and to somehow bring the continuous mining machines and Cat bulldozers back to life make me think he understands the business of coal mining no better than he knew the business of gambling in Atlantic City that bankrupted his casinos.”
Most of Appalachia feels abandoned. Many feel hopeless and discarded in this country. It’s an anxiety that stems from feeling “no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies,” as the Dalai Lama expresses. So when one candidate says they are putting you out of business because your skills are no longer needed, and the other one says they are going to support you, what do you expect a region that’s declining in relevance to do? Many want to talk about the racism and sexism of Trump voters, and while I will not deny these things flourish in Appalachia as in any other part of this country, those were not the driving forces of the family that let me into their home for this film.
In the end, though, I fundamentally believe that it’s up to the people of these rural regions to choose their future. To work together and find a way out. We don’t have time to wait and see if the left or right will follow through on promises made on the campaign trail.
Martha Shane: I spent election day filming with Jesus, a DREAMer and an organizer at the community non-profit PACT (People Acting in Community Together) in San Jose, California. When I was invited to participate in this project, I immediately wanted to tell a story that was immigration-related, because of all the incendiary rhetoric surrounding immigration (“Build the wall!”) and because immigrants had so much at stake in this election. But I never seriously considered the possibility that the day would end with Trump elected president.
Between sunrise and midnight on November 8, the shift in mood could not have been more dramatic. The sun was blaring in San Jose when we started that morning, and I filmed Jesus and his fellow organizers canvassing and making phone calls for their ballot propositions, which focused on juvenile justice reform, housing and education. (PACT, as a non-profit, works on a range of issues, but does not endorse any candidate.) There was an atmosphere of optimism and lightness – everyone was working fervently, but a lot of the hardest work of registering voters and getting out the vote had already been done.
As the election results began to come in, making Clinton’s victory look less certain, Jesus maintained an optimistic outlook. But as the hours passed, it dawned on everyone that something had gone horribly wrong. From a filmmaking point-of-view, it was like the film we were making had unexpectedly switched genres – from a lighthearted drama-comedy to straight horror. Earlier in the day, filming with Jesus and his fellow organizer Frank as they canvassed, I had laughed with them that I felt like I was making a buddy comedy. By the end of the night, we feebly joked that the buddy comedy had become a buddy tragedy.
Still, I felt incredibly lucky to be filming with Jesus and the other activists at PACT on election day. For one thing, filming was a distraction from my own horror and grief at the results of the election. I didn’t want to stop filming because I felt that when we stopped filming, I would have to fully confront what had happened on my own. Secondly, PACT had won all their propositions, bringing positive changes to housing, education and criminal justice in the area, and Jesus cast the national election as a wake-up call. In this new country, there’s no time for complacency, he argued. There’s time only for the fight. I spent November 9 exhausted and emotionally overwhelmed as I flew home to New York, but Jesus’ message stayed with me then, and now, and I hope it will stay with me for the next four years and beyond.