05 Oct An Interview with Eric Stange, Director of Activized
Director Eric Stange’s film Activized (2019) is an Official Selection Winner in the Free Speech Film Festival. We got to know Stange better through an interview, and are sharing some of his responses on his film and background through our Director Series on the Spotlight Blog.
Responses have been condensed for concision and clarity.
Free Speech Film Festival: How has filmmaking impacted your interests and personality?
Eric Stange: I’ve been a documentary filmmaker since the 1980s, I’ve been doing this a long time and most of my career was spent making films for PBS and often historical documentaries, not always. But I’ve done other sorts of things, like science and healthcare and other topics. I started out in print journalism, I got my masters degree in print journalism from Boston University. I worked for the Boston Herald, and I wrote a lot about documentary filmmakers, mostly because nobody else wanted to write about them. But I got to know a lot about the local documentary film community in Boston, which is a very active film community, and a lot of national programming comes out of Boston. And as I got to know these people, I really like them and I respected their work, and I thought they were having a lot more fun than I was. It’s a very collegial and collaborative way of working. Very few people make a film alone, almost everybody has to have a team, and I really liked that part of it. And so little by little, I decided to become a documentary filmmaker, and took about five years to transition out of print journalism into documentaries.
I thought it would be easier than it was. It’s a very hard business, because it’s tough to raise the money, there’s not a lot of money and films are expensive, so it’s not like writing a magazine article. You can write a magazine article on a very small budget, but making a film requires a lot more, depending on the film and depending on how you’re doing it. So I had to learn how to be a fundraiser and a grant writer and a schmoozer and all sorts of things while learning how to make films.
FSFF: When you were growing up, did you always have an interest in media?
ES: No, I mean it’s funny, I did theoretically, and I had friends who went to film school, but it never occurred to me to go to film school. I was an English major and a history minor, and I always thought I’d be a teacher or professor, or something like that, but then I drifted into print journalism. I liked print journalism for a while. But no, media always seemed too complicated. But I began to realize that filmmakers are just like everybody else, it’s just a set of skills you have to learn, and I got more intrigued. I thought it would be an easy transition to go from being a writer to being a filmmaker, but it’s really a whole different way of looking at content and a narrative and a story.
In filmmaking you’re doing it in three dimensions, you’ve got the picture, you’ve got the sound, and you’ve got the words. Those three things, and music, so really there’s so many more things going on, and you have to make sure they don’t fight each other, but that they complement each other and add up. The whole has to be greater than the sum of the parts. And especially these days, you’ve got to keep people’s attention.
FSFF: Regarding Activized, what inspired it and what was your thinking when you decided to create a film about activists?
ES: That’s a really good question, because it didn’t start with me, it started with a woman named Lisa Tripp who was a retired high school history teacher who lives in Belmont, just outside Boston, and I happened to know her son. Her son came to me and said that his mother was interested in funding a documentary film that was about Trump, but would never mention Trump. She wanted to do a film that was about the response to Trump or the resistance to Trump, but she didn’t want to see Trump, she didn’t want to hear Trump, she didn’t want to feature Trump in any way, she didn’t even want his name mentioned. So I said sure, you know I always say yes, you learn as a filmmaker that if somebody says they want to pay for a film you say yes, and you can figure out the details later. So we started to meet, the three of us, Adam, Lisa, and I, and hashed out ideas about how we could do this. Little by little, we came around to this idea of profiling first time activists, people who had never been activists before, but because of the Trump era, because of Trump, they had jumped in with both feet into something, so that became the theme of the film and the way to organize the film, where we didn’t have to talk about Trump where it would be obvious. And then we zeroed in on these three issue areas of gun violence prevention, immigration rights, and voting rights. And then, the hard part, which was all my doing, was finding the people. That’s just time, that’s shoe-leather in the old fashioned way, by phone, by email.
FSFF: How did you find and pick people to feature in the film in places like North Carolina and Texas?
ES: At the time we were looking, it was two years ago this summer, the child separation policy had unfolded over that summer, so there was an enormous response at the Texas border. My daughter works in immigration rights, so she knew some of the organizations involved, and so she gave me names of organizations, which I could then contact. It was really about finding organizations in each of these areas. I knew there were voting rights problems in North Carolina, it was in the news, and there was an election coming up in the fall of 2018, so it was easy to try and find organizations. You just start calling and say ‘do you know anyone who fits this description, somebody who had never been an activist before, that just in the past year or two has become incredibly active, somebody who’s going to be doing something’. Of course, there are plenty of people who are outraged, but not everybody was going to be out on the streets doing something, right up at the border or marching. We needed to be able to see people doing things, that’s always the challenge of a documentary. Unlike an article, where you can describe what people did before, what they’re going to do, and it can be very riveting. But in film, you’ve got the camera, and you’ve got to show it.
FSFF: Was there a particular story or person in Activized that you were able to connect with personally the most?
ES: All of them really, but Vikiana is a force of nature, and we’re all going to be voting for her for Senator one of these days. She’s amazing, and even more involved now and doing all sorts of things. She’s going to University of Massachusetts Boston, so she’s very much around Boston. Elizabeth in Texas is just an incredible person and it’s hard to stay in touch with her because she’s so busy, she’s now going back and forth to work in the camps where the immigrants who are seeking asylum have now basically been imprisoned in these camps on the border. They need all sorts of help still, especially with COVID it’s such a mess. So she’s working full time on that sort of thing. They’re all wonderful. Gerold Givens, who we met through Aylett, who’s head of the NAACP in North Carolina, he’s an amazing guy. He came out of the Air Force and became a political activist. I like them all, but the young people especially. It’s so exciting to watch Daphne and Vikiana and see how they’re moving along with their lives.
FSFF: How can those who may not have free speech make a difference in their communities?
ES: This came up in another panel discussion after the film. There were students who were going to a university called University of Mary Washington, which is in Virginia and very conservative in general, but these students organized a screening of Activized, and a lot of them come from small towns in the south, where you don’t talk about these kinds of politics. Somebody on the panel discussion was saying, you just talk to one person at a time, you just try to find one person who might be open to at least hearing your point of view. And trying to engage them. You’re not going to change hearts and minds overnight, but if you can even engage with just one person, that makes a difference. And that’s true. But also there’s just phone calling and that sort of thing, and especially during this election season, and this one in particular, where all the contacts are remote, anyone can send postcards and go online and find organizations that help set you up with postcards that you can send to people in battleground states, to try and convince them to vote, that sort of thing.
In the film, Lizzie talks about how she had to explain to her parents why she feels this way and the ways she sees it. Not in an angry way, not in a confrontational way. She’s an adult so it’s easier, it’s harder for kids when your parents are paying for your college. But you let people know why you feel strongly about something, in a respectful way, and people have a way of hearing other people if you’re doing it in the right spirit and attitude.
FSFF: What is your reaction to people who aren’t activists?
ES: Right now it’s all about voting, it’s all about turning out to vote, it’s all about getting Trump and ridiculous Republican senators out of office. That’s got to happen on a number of levels, of course, messaging is really important. But really what it comes down to is getting people to vote, and that’s about phone calls and knocking on doors, if you can, or at least phone calling and postcard writing, and just making sure that people are registered and that people get out and vote. We know that in particularly the states that matter, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, there are enough Democratic voters in the cities particularly, and now maybe even in rural areas, to defeat Trump, I’m convinced of that. I’m sure they’re there. And they didn’t come out for Hillary Clinton, for a whole bunch of complicated reasons, but I think that the Democrats, if they’re better organized, and more committed, can get them out. And then after that, you got to keep the pressure up on the Biden administration, hopefully there is one, to really follow through on some of these more progressive things. I mean, I’m certainly confident that Biden would address voting rights and voting issues, and would think that it would be important to him, it’s important to almost any Democrat. Healthcare, I feel like he’s moving in the right direction certainly. Gun violence prevention, I don’t know, that’s just so hard for politicians apparently, they just can’t seem to cut themselves off from that money, but maybe things are changing. I think things are changing. And that comes down to things being about the Senate, too. If we can’t get a Democratic senate, then we’re really screwed.
FSFF: What advice would you give to your past self and the younger generation about free speech and finding your freedom to speak, or advice to become more active?
ES: There are a lot of different ways to be active, I’m not the kind of person who’s comfortable out on the front lines of things, which is why I went into documentary filmmaking. Documentary filmmaking is a lot about observing and chronicling what’s going on, not so much making it happen, although as a filmmaker you often do have to make sure something does happen in the right time and place for you to be able to film it, so there is that part of it. But I have two older sisters who are both way more politically active than I am in terms of helping organize demonstrations, I mean in the old days, but they still do them sometimes, and really being among the lead organizers of things. I’ve never taken that role. But the role I do take is to chronicle things, and to show things, and to get people to see things, and I hope big audiences. So that’s a different kind of activism, I consider this film a form of my own personal activism. There are all different ways. Obviously making a film is more of a commitment than most people can take on, but very small things can help. I mean, the woman in North Carolina talks about how just showing up at a meeting, showing up at a city council meeting or a state legislature committee hearing, and letting people know that you’re there because you’re part of a group that believes that such and such should happen or shouldn’t happen, it’s important to show up because the press will chronicle that, and it will say, there were a dozen people there representing this particular point of view. Every little bit counts, and it doesn’t happen overnight. You’re not going to win overnight, you’re going to lose more than you win, usually, and it takes a very long time, but it does happen if you keep it up. Small steps, little gestures, it all begins to add up, and try to build alliances with people. There’s a role for every kind of person, I’m convinced of that. You don’t have to be the one chanting in the megaphone, leading the march, just being in the march helps.
FSFF: Other than an update on the activists in Activized, do you have any other projects you’re working on?
ES: I was starting up a film about a group within the Democratic party, called Organizing Corps 2020. It was a brand new initiative in the Democratic Party to hire and train and pay a thousand young people to be professional political organizers ahead of the convention. The idea was to get kids graduating from college this past spring, and have them commit to taking a job as soon as they graduate, go out and work for whoever the Democratic candidate was. It sounds obvious, but it was a brand new idea, to have paid people committed to the candidate, not committed to any one candidate, but committed to the final candidate. And being trained ahead of time, and ready to go the moment the whole thing started. They still did it, but the whole thing had to move online, of course, and that doesn’t make for a very exciting film, so I ended up not really doing much filming. It’s really hard to just do a bunch of Zoom interviews, but I am going to start doing it and interview some of them. They ended up hiring about 850 people, they didn’t quite get to the thousand, but that’s still a lot of people, and they’re all in battleground states and from the communities they’re going to be working in. They’re from immigrant communities and Hispanic communities, and African American communities, because that’s where the Democrats fell down in 2016.
And the idea is now these young people are trained to be political activists, and they will continue on after the election. Some of them go into community organizing, some go into other kinds of political work, where it really helps to understand how elections happen, how you get turnout, how you get voters involved, all the skills they’re learning. It’s a big investment on the part of the Democrats, and I hope it’ll pay off. But yes, the idea was to follow three or four or five of these young people through their recruitment and their training and then go out with them on the streets all the way up to November. I’m going to try to pick it up, it’s a fun idea. It would be similar in some ways to Activized. I’ve talked to enough of these people to know that some of them have always been interested in politics, others just recently got into it and just decided ‘this looks cool and I’ll try it’.
Interview by India, 2020 American INSIGHT Intern, Tufts University 2020
Transcription by Corinne, 2020 American INSIGHT Intern, Scripps College 2021
All images courtesy of Eric Stange