Dorothy Fadiman, Stealing America: Vote By Vote
A true independent, documentarian Dorothy Fadiman has resolutely worked outside the system for more than 30 years. Pittsburgh native Fadiman was a Stanford speech pathology graduate with a husband and two kids when, in 1976, an LSD trip inspired her to become a filmmaker. The resulting short, Radiance, took a religious, poetic and academic look at light in the universe, and motivated Fadiman to continue to make films driven by her passions and interests. A grassroots activist since the early 60s, Fadiman has predominantly focused on social and political issues in her documentaries, and she had tremendous success with the From the Back Alleys to the Supreme Court & Beyond trilogy (made between 1992 and 1996), three short films on abortion which between them garnered an Academy Award nomination and an Emmy. More recently, Fadiman directed Woman by Woman (2001), about women in the poorest villages in India, and Seeds of Hope (2006), a series of five short films about AIDS in Ethopia. In addition to directing, Fadiman has produced many of her films, and this year she co-authored a book entitled Producing with Passion: Making Films That Change the World.
Fadiman’s latest project, Stealing America: Vote by Vote, is arguably her most prescient to date, a documentary inspired by her own experiences working as an election volunteer in 2004 at the Florida polls. Beginning with malfunctioning electronic voting machines, the film explores an alarming number of inconsistencies and irregularities, painting a damning picture of widespread election fraud. The film is rudimentary rather than slick but trusts in the power of the compelling case it makes that George W. Bush was reelected was only because of the suppression of votes and intentionally corrupted voting machines, and that this is a continuing trend which fundamentally threatens the right of Americans to have their voices heard and their votes counted.
Filmmaker spoke to Fadiman about covering a story the mainstream media had avoided, the advantages of having true independence as a filmmaker, and where Hollywood is going wrong.
Filmmaker: What was it that prompted you to make this film?
Fadiman: For decades, I’ve been a grassroots activist. I was a member of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, in 1961 and I have always wanted to participate in disenfranchisement issues to see if I could help make a difference. I was working at the polls in Florida for the 2004 election as a volunteer, doing whatever needed doing, and when we were being oriented the attorney said to a group of about 100 of us, “I have to warn you about something. During the early election, people have reported that they would try to vote for Kerry and they were getting Bush on the screen.” And this is where the story starts to get interesting, because he said, “Now, I want to caution you to not tell people that that is going to happen or that it might happen because it will discourage them from voting.” At that point, I couldn’t make any sense of either piece of information, that the vote was flipping or that we shouldn’t tell people, but in any case I went on to work at the polls. I didn’t actually see it, but I was catching wind of the fact that this was continuing to happen throughout the day in South Florida, that people were trying to vote for Kerry and were getting Bush. On the way home on the airplane, many of us who’d come from California to work at the polls began to talk and it turned out that everyone had been hearing about or directly experienced that. So the next day I decided I wanted to make a film about that one phenomenon and when I lifted the rock, there was a whole world of irregularities.
Filmmaker: How did you go about researching the film?
Fadiman: At first it was just word of mouth among the people who’d actually been with me in Florida, and then I looked at the newspapers and I couldn’t find anything. So I went on the internet – and this was the only place I found this information – and I began to see that from reading bloggers and political activist sites that something was wrong but nobody could quite track what it was. Then one by one, articles that actually followed these problems began to appear, so I read about the irregularities in exit polls, for example, and then I began to follow that. Then where that lead is Jonathan Simon, who downloaded the exit polls on election night and saw the discrepancy when the polls froze, and so I went to Jonathan Simon himself and said, “Tell me more.”
Filmmaker: How shocked were you by the extent of the irregularities?
Fadiman: Well, I hadn’t seen anything cumulative. I was piecing it together for myself as many people were and I’d say the thing that shocked me most about the irregularities as the information about them began to accumulate and be validated was the fact that no mainstream media was picking it up. The first article I read in print, which was fairly extensive, was Mark Crispin Miller’s article called “None Dare Call It Stolen,” and that was in Harper’s. And when he actually put his extensive findings into several books, they were virtually ignored by the mainstream media. There is this phenomenon where, for some combination of reasons, the mainstream media is not touching this subject.
Filmmaker: Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s a belief that people are not interested, or do you think it’s active suppression?
Fadiman: Oh, I think it’s suppression. I don’t want to make this interview too political, but I will say something that is just a fact: the mainstream is for the most part owned and run by corporate organizations and companies, and the relationship between the current administration and corporations is well documented. I don’t think it’s that people don’t want to hear about it because when I toured the country with this film as a work-in-progress, the theaters were packed. So I think people do want to hear about it, but they’re not being given easy access to the information.
Filmmaker: How keen were people to talk to you when you approached them to be in the film?
Fadiman: It wasn’t easy at first. The people who had been studying the issue and finding information were thrilled to have an opportunity to share what they found because there so few outlets; the people to whom it happened were more careful. So what I needed to do – and I’d done this before because I’ve been making films for 30 years – is record at first two or three people who were willing to come forward, and then I shared those interviews with a large group of people who were gathered by a church in Youngstown, Ohio, where many votes had flipped in that community. I showed them the footage and then one by one people said, “I want to share my story.” And once the film was being shown, everywhere I went people would come up and say, “I have a story.”
Filmmaker: The film paints the issue of election fraud in the current era as something which is exclusively being carried out by the Republicans. You say in the film that the media and the Democrats are complicit by doing nothing, but it still seems a very partisan perspective.
Fadiman: Well, what I tried to do was find out from the interviewees was what their own feelings and observations were about the Democrats. You may remember that somebody in the film says that both parties do it, but at the moment the Republicans seem to have access to and ownership of more sophisticated equipment. The fact is, is it partisan to say that white men took black men as slaves? As I researched the subject, this is what I found: I researched vote flipping to find out what percentage of votes reported in 13 states had flipped from Bush to Kerry. In the film, it says the majority indicates more than 90%, but the fact is the percent was about 98%. But I thought people weren’t going to believe me if I said that. Is it partisan to say this is what happened?
Filmmaker: Was it always your aim to release the film at this time to coincide with election fever?
Fadiman: Honest to God, it wasn’t done until now. It kept lacking things and I kept adding interviews to balance it and make it more believable to people who were cautious or disbelieving. So I just interviewed Paul Craig Roberts, who was in the Reagan administration and at the Wall Street Journal, [and] I just interviewed Ion Sancho, who is an elected election official who was the technical advisor to the Florida recount. I felt that I needed to have some of those other voices in there and by the time I got everybody together it was now. In fact, people advised me to get it out way before this if I wanted to make people aware when they voted to be careful, to pay attention and be observant – but I couldn’t finish it any faster than this. Things take as long as they take, and this one took almost four years. I just finally got it right now.
Filmmaker: I’d like to talk about your first film, Radiance. Am I right in saying that you were inspired to make it after the experience of an LSD trip?
Fadiman: Yes, it was an LSD trip and it was very spiritual and very sacred. LSD has a spectrum of uses: it can be used for fun; it can be used for sacred, spiritual experiences especially with a guide. And I did have a guide, and had a very deeply spiritual experience in which I saw and experienced the presence of light as intelligence throughout the universe.
Filmmaker: And since that film, you’ve been a filmmaker working outside of the system for more than 30 years. What has that experience been like? Do you feel you’ve been at something of a disadvantage?
Fadiman: No, I don’t feel that at all. People are hungry for projects they believe in and care about. I have no lack of funding, I have no lack of volunteers, and I have no lack of people who want to work on the films. It’s really been phenomenal how people come forward to work on these films and support these films. The abortion series had more than 300 individual donations and 17 foundations gave grants. So yes, I’m outside the system but there are a number of individuals and foundations who want to support filmmakers who are willing and able to work outside the system.
Filmmaker: I read somewhere that you have struggled to balance your personal life and family life with your filmmaking.
Fadiman: That has been the sacrifice, that has been the place where it has cost me something that I could actually sit down and add up: Less time with a husband (I’ve been married to the same man for 45 years), less time with children and grandchildren, less time with all extended family. And everyone supports me, and everyone trusts me and believes that what I’ve been doing is worth it. I sat my children down – at one point, I’d taken some kind of growth workshop and it encouraged you to apologize to the people in your life that you’ve hurt – and I apologized to my two daughters, and they both said the same thing to me, almost simultaneously. They said, “What are you apologizing for?! We’re so proud of you, and we love what you do and you were always there when we needed you.”
Filmmaker: Do you feel you’ve been able to strike the right balance then?
Fadiman: No, not a balance. But was it worth it? It’s close, but I’d say yes. But not by much. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?
Fadiman: [laughs] Well, I’ll answer that one abstractly. I’d like to see more well-funded, well-produced high-end documentaries. I’d like to see more films like the Karen Silkwood story [Silkwood], or Whose Life Is It Anyway?, films that take real life situations and docudrama them with real people going through real experiences. There was a film on HBO, If These Walls Could Talk, and Cher, Lily Tomlin and Sissy Spacek told stories of women who’d lived through abortions in a narrative, and I’d like to see more well done docudramas [like that].
Filmmaker: Finally, if the world ended tomorrow, what (if anything) would you be sad about that you hadn’t achieved?
Fadiman: Well, creatively I’ve exceeded my goals by so much I can’t even measure – I’ve produced 20 films and I love every one of them. Interpersonally, I feel really good about the relationships that I have in my life. I would say if the world ended tomorrow, I’d regret that I haven’t taken better care of my body, that I would be stronger, more athletic, eat even better so that I would have the clarity and strength to do the work. My body is OK but it is one of the things that I have sacrificed in a way while I’ve immersed myself in filmmaking. I am turning a corner now but I am going to have to do a lot of work to catch up for so much that I haven’t done. I’m making a new commitment once this film is finished to focus on healing and strengthening my body.