“If There Ever Was a Time For a Film about How Everyday Heroes Can Fight Back”: Eli B. Despres and Elyse Steinberg on The Fight
If you remain unconvinced American civil liberties are under attack at an unprecedented degree, just wait until you see what the presidential administration cooks up next week (and the week after that). As every day brings a slew of new xenophobic tweets and attacks on the United States Constitution courtesy of Donald Trump, the public display of abuse of power has never been so transparent and, frighteningly, tolerated by constituents.
As immigrant families seeking asylum continue to get thrown in cages, American protestors are thrown into unmarked vans) and reproductive and LGBTQ rights are challenged and erased, the need for a unified voice to push back against the President’s vitriolic policies is essential. And just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, 2020 arrived, leading to the President politicizing the use of masks during a public health crisis, tear-gassing and firing rubber bullets at his own citizens, threatening to penalize international students by rejecting their visas—on it goes.
Luckily, the employees of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which celebrated its 100th birthday earlier this year, are working tirelessly day and night to challenge Trump’s rhetoric and policies. Made up of passionate attorneys working in various divisions of civil rights, the ACLU has long been a part of American history, often working hard to make sure it doesn’t descend down a dark path by whomever currently occupies the Oval Office.
Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s The Fight, released in select theaters and on demand today from Magnolia Pictures and Topic Studios, documents four civil rights infringements being waged by the Trump administration and the ACLU attorneys determined to push back. Threats to Americans’ immigration, reproductive, military and voting rights take center stage, and the trio of directors, taking a “fly on the wall” approach that follows the increasing pressures of the attorneys’ lifestyle, ultimately craft a moving testament to individuals who, facing neverending obstacles and roadblocks, refuse to succumb to injustice.
I spoke with Despres and Steinberg earlier this week to discuss the origins of the project, protecting the anonymity of select subjects, the use of animation in private courtroom sequences, and why now feels as timely a moment as ever to get the film out into the world.
Filmmaker: Your previous feature, Weiner, was a documentary that was perhaps more a character study than a depiction of cutthroat NYC politics. The Fight feels a bit different. While it also hones in on specific lead characters, it feels birthed from (and guided by) the specific legal cases they’re involved in. I’ll ask a “does the dog wag the tail or does the tail wag the dog?” kind of question: did the initial impetus for The Fight come as a result of specific ACLU cases or was it the lawyers themselves that attracted you?
Steinberg: It began with a very specific event at the start of 2017: Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” [Executive Order 13769], which went into effect just seven days into his presidency. I decided to go down to the Brooklyn Courthouse to join local protesters who had gathered outside in response to the new policy. Lee Gelernt [one of the attorneys in our film] was inside, arguing for an emergency stay order for those at risk [of being deported or allowed into the country]. I was steps away from the exit doors when Lee eventually emerged, his fists raised high and his face filled with exhaustion and exhilaration (and total shock) at the sizable crowd chanting “A-C-L-U.” I knew then that we should make a film on the frontlines alongside the ACLU lawyers who fight against Trump’s policies. It felt like it was going to be a major moment in history. I also had a personal connection to this story, as my mother was a litigator who fought for immigrant rights for many years, so making a film about these lawyers’ struggles felt familiar to me.
Filmmaker: As the film makes clear at the outset, there are hundreds of cases the ACLU is currently battling against the Trump administration. Your film chooses four specific ones that represent different aspects of a violation of human rights. How did you settle on which violations you wanted to focus on and, subsequently, how did you go about choosing the specific cases?
Despres: We tend to take a “character first” approach, believing that the way into these big issues is through the human struggle at the core. We’re more interested in these attorneys once we identify them as human beings in familiar environments, whether that’s struggling to wrangle their kids or attempting to get their voice-to-text dictation software to work. After Elyse brought us to Lee, we began sorting through the ACLU’s biggest cases and were excited to discover that the organization is made up of quirky and dynamic….well, oddballs isn’t the right word, but they’re an eclectic bunch, a motley crew of individuals. The cases we chose obviously cover some of the biggest topics of the day, as they’re all at the center of American conflict—once you get into voting rights and reproductive rights and immigrant rights and LGBT rights, you’re at the epicenter of each of the civil rights battles that have been waged in our country for decades. We were excited to find what Dale Ho calls “the tattoo and piercing gang.”
Steinberg: We met Lee first but didn’t know who or what other stories we would follow. We just knew that we wanted to follow ACLU lawyers who were on the frontlines, fighting these cases on a daily basis. We took our cameras down to the ACLU’s Manhattan office and set up shop, and that’s how Dale Ho, Chase Strangio, Joshua Block, and Brigitte Amiri “emerged” for us. Once their cases became apparent, we settled on them as our leads.
For example, I was at the ACLU when Trump tweeted that he was banning transgender soldiers from serving in the military and quickly asked the office, “who are the lawyers that will handle this case?” It was being overseen by Josh and Chase, so I paired up with them. They then recommended that I also follow Brigitte, an attorney active in reproductive rights, and capture the story that she was working on. Being a “fly on the wall” at the ACLU office was always our starting-off point, and we wanted subjects who had the visceral spark that all documentarians crave.
Filmmaker: Whereas a film like Weiner came with complete access as a result of an already built-in familiarity and comfortability between subject and filmmaker, I imagine the circumstances were a little different here. How did you know that the lawyers you settled on would open up to you in the way your film requires? Did you put them through a kind of screen test? Did you have other narrative strands you could follow on the side in case you needed to pivot?
Steinberg: It was a similar process to Weiner in that, while Josh had a previous working relationship with Anthony Weiner, it was still ultimately about being around our subjects all the time. That’s how you capture the moments that make your movie, especially the kind of films that we do, these “verite/follow” docs. On Weiner, Josh and I would try to get ahead of the action by brainstorming potential scenes like, “okay, we’re going to film Anthony’s cab ride at night [this evening]. We have to stay up really late and be there for the cab ride Anthony will take to so-and-so event. It’s not the event itself we need to capture, it’s his cab ride to the event that will be key.”
Similarly, when we were filming with the ACLU, we figured out the rhythms of when important events in our subjects’ lives might occur. Lee always works at night, so we would hang around the office and wait for Lee to arrive and get to work. Brigitte is a morning person, so we’d come in early to shoot with her. We also were also able to craft our shooting schedule around the typical timeline of cases, understanding that Mondays are often for waiting for a Supreme Court decision to be made. Mondays were the day to be with our lawyers (many of whom had Supreme Court cases) at any time of the day. And if we knew a Supreme Court decision was upcoming, we would prepare to stick it out and document the result.
For example, we followed Dale for several months until we got what ultimately became the final scene in our film (with him at the Supreme Court on behalf of his case). We traveled with him, went to the mechanic with him where he was getting his car checked out, etc. Just being there is everything for a documentary and it strengthens the filmmaker/subject relationship. By the time we got to the final scene with Dale, he had a real comfort with us. We had been filming with him for over two-and-a-half years, so by the time the big event happened, he never felt self-conscious.
Filmmaker: As the film unfolds at a very rapid pace, often timed specifically to a definitive court ruling (or the hope of a definitive court ruling), were you able to craft a shooting schedule based around those impending hearings? Did it affect the type of equipment you could quickly pick up and go?
Despres: We always had a “to go” bag ready and packed. There are typically two of us following a subject, one of us shooting and another backing them up as a producer. We were logging a lot of miles in the air, sometimes at the drop of a hat or at the sending of a presidential tweet… I don’t know how many different cities we shot in, but there were scores.
Steinberg: Our DP, Sean McGing, shot about 90% of the film. We were always just a ten-minute subway ride away from the ACLU National building, and even when we relocated our personal office, we were still in short proximity to the ACLU National. The subway ride to the office was faster than a cab ride, and Sean mapped out a regimented system of how long it would take to retrieve his “to go” bag if he were at his apartment or if he was at our office. When Sean couldn’t film something, we called on other local shooters we knew. Their schedules had to be pretty open.
Filmmaker: Did you divvy up the responsibilities of each case by assigning cinematographers to specific ones?
Steinberg: We tried to keep it to Sean shooting on the field for most, if not all, of the shoot. Whereas on Weiner, Josh shot 95% of that film.
Despres: Elyse is a gifted field producer as well and was in charge of much of the scheduling. We have an easy way of talking about film, both the production and post-production side of things, both style and substance, etc. We’re waiting for it to all go off the rails, but so far it’s been a rewarding partnership. [laughs]
Steinberg: You have to divide things out at different times with different projects. You need to determine who goes out into the field and who will step back a bit and be more involved in the edit, etc. The three of us figure out the balance of who’s covering what and that’s important for our subjects. You don’t want to put too many people around them. They only want a relationship with a few folks, so you form the relationship and keep to it.
Filmmaker: Your films often feature a clean “multipanel approach” to presenting a wealth of information. We’re treated to double or triple projections of archival material presented to us throughout different sections of a single frame. It’s a clever way of bypassing parallel editing and letting the events unfold simultaneously (as they did in real life). Do you find it to be a reliable technique of getting the viewer up to speed?
Despres: The multipanel approach in Weiner helped illustrate the constant media microscope he was under and the 10,000 ways one could perceive him as a result. We wanted to show how different voices were discussing his life at every given moment (while here he was just trying to live it). The visual choice was a shorthand for him constantly being under that microscope. There’s some of that idea in The Fight as well, but we used it primarily due to a limitation. It can be challenging when making a film that involves legal cases, yet you’re not in the courtroom itself. You have to integrate the different events taking place and acknowledge the characters who are in this space even while the audience itself can’t be placed in that space alongside them.
For instance, when Brigitte is cross examining Scott Lloyd, the man who prevented our Jane Doe from receiving an abortion, we weren’t allowed to get into that room with a camera. We thus had to use our “Brady Bunch technique” of multiple panels to allow the audience to feel the tension of having the characters share a screen.
Filmmaker: I suppose film is a courtroom drama that doesn’t feature much of a courtroom. In the moments where it does, you often showcase archival footage of the proceedings or use brightly-colored animation that illustrates the unfolding, race-against-the-clock sequence of events.
Despres: We’ve never really worked with animation before, outside of the odd diagram here or there. It allows you to place your camera wherever you want and try any lens on and compose the image any way you like. It was also an example of addition-by-subtraction. We like using animation to strip away certain details, so that you’re forced to focus on the emotions pushed to the forefront. With a contrast in lighting and color and composition, you can match the audience eyeline to your character’s eyeline or to the flow of the action in the room.
We looked at animation styles that were realistic in tone. That led us to Arvid Steen, who had created the animations for the Oscar-winning documentary from 2012, Searching for Sugar Man. He’s a brilliant artist and we brought him aboard The Fight. The color palette he came up with was key. Each character that we animate has their own signature palette and there’s a hint of the heroic in the ones we chose, where we eventually eased into a four color, Marvel comic book style.
Filmmaker: Outside of the courtroom sequences, were there other moments you weren’t allowed to film that led you to getting more creative with how you could convey a particular scenario to the viewer?
Despres: There were a couple. You will notice that our interview with Jane Doe doesn’t allow the viewer to see her face. We had to keep her identity obscured. So for her segments, we got more creative with what elements of character we could show. You get a sense of how young she is as we’re forced to go to an insert shot of her playing with her hair or the insert shot of her Keds sneakers. Actually, I don’t remember the specific brand of shoe, but they’re definitely not grownup shoes. Then there’s Ms. L, who we also couldn’t show and, as a result, had to use old photographs and audio of her voice. The fact that we only get to hear her while we’re staring at the detention center that she’s being held captive in provides the moment at the end of the film (where she’s free and reunited with her daughter) with a power that we wouldn’t have otherwise achieved. But the withholding of her from the viewer was purely an act of necessity.
Filmmaker: I had a question about that kind of access to the subjects who are most affected by Trump’s policies. I imagine having Brigitte participating in the film was the connection to getting Jane Doe to participate? Were there any precautions or specific actions you had to take, as filmmakers, to put subjects more at ease, knowing that their identity was going to be protected at all costs?
Steinberg: We understood that the lawyers were dealing with very sensitive legal issues and restrictions. So we said, “At any time you wish, you can kick us out of the room,” and that obviously is important to make clear when dealing with attorney/client privilege. That was one of the ground rules we accepted, that we would be kicked out at key moments we would have otherwise filmed. You find a rhythm in relation to that. But our first way into the story was through the lawyers, and from the lawyers came the clients and making sure that they too were comfortable with us.
Jane Doe was a special case. Legally speaking, various people were trying to find out her identity and where in the United States she was located. So, if she were to be in our film, she had to be an anonymous figure throughout, and we had to follow some strict guidelines.
Filmmaker: As the film makes clear, the work of the ACLU never really stops. Your film could, then, be seen as a living document that’s still very much being written. That’s true of many documentaries, I suppose, but you both have a knack for finding ones that keep marching past a definitive end point, even as you’re doing press for them several months after they’ve world premiered and are now coming to theaters. The world that Weiner opened in theatrically, for example, was a very different one than the one it premiered in at Sundance, and that feels doubly true of The Fight. January 2020 feels like at least a decade ago.
Despres: The film feels even more resonant to us as of this summer, yeah. I mean, the opening scene of the movie is a public outcry that’s propelled by events taking place inside a courtroom. As you see with the Black Lives Matter movement, people protesting in the streets and marching in response to the murder of George Floyd are driving legislative and legal action. Cities are revising their policing policies in very fundamental ways, and it all feels part of the same throughline. As Dale says in our movie, it’s not going to be lawyers in courtrooms who make the real change. It’s the people who are out there in the public. There’s a real sense that we’re seeing it once again, where the action of the street is driving the conversation in the halls of power.
Steinberg: Hopefully our film shares their energy. Seeing these lawyers take action on a daily basis is what kept us going. They’re “everyday people” doing extraordinary things. As we head toward a presidential election this November, if there ever was a time for a film about how everyday heroes can fight back and make change, now’s the time to put it out into the world.