Go backBack to selection

“I Don’t Invest Hope in Celebrity or Leaders Too Much, But I Do Have Hope in People”: Mitch McCabe on Their True/False Premiere 23 Mile

23 Mile

While the pandemic spurred many (white collar) Americans to flee the big cities and retreat to the safety and comfort of living room Zooming, Detroit native Mitch McCabe returned home to the big city and instead roamed the often chaotic streets, eventually journeying throughout Michigan, camera in tow. What the veteran filmmaker-educator (and Flaherty Seminar and MacDowell fellow) witnessed was what we all primarily saw in that “unprecedented” election year: anger. At lockdowns, at those attending protests unmasked. And masked. At the murder of George Floyd, at the BLM movement, at Trump. At Democrat elites like Governor Gretchen Whitmer and President Joe Biden. And while the characters were likewise familiar — from white gun-toting militiamen to Black bullhorn-wielding activists — McCabe also dug deeper into this mess of humanity to capture scenes unfolding that were ever more surreal. A group of the aforementioned anti-government extremists on the steps of the state capitol defending, via an intimidatingly armed show of force, a Black activist’s right to free speech. A pro-Second Amendment speech in which he fervently addresses every “beautiful” person, including “women, men, and whatever they identify as.” Or an unexpectedly amiable guy standing outside his house (and lawn) plastered in Biden-Harris signs as he’s subject to jeers from his MAGA hood. So how does it feel to be the target of nonstop daily vitriol? “Sad,” he laments with a shrug. “Sad for the Trump folks because they’re so angry.”

The result is McCabe’s endlessly fascinating and elegantly crafted 78-minute video diary titled 23 Mile, which serves as a much-needed cinematic reminder in this round two election year that uncomplicated narratives that simply confirm our preconceived notions do a disservice to us all. So just prior to the doc’s True/False debut today, Filmmaker reached out to the eclectic director, whose work runs the gamut from narrative to nonfiction, short to feature-length, and everything in between, to learn all about shooting in potentially explosive environments and extending an ear if not hand to the other side of the political divide.

Filmmaker: You managed to fit a wealth of thought-provoking material into a tight 78 minutes, which makes me wonder how much footage you actually shot. And how did you even choose what to include (and not)?

McCabe: There have been films I’ve made where it just feels like I’m always shooting, and going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole. Unless something is very interview-based, I mostly shoot my own work. The camera sort of feels like another limb when I’m making a doc, and I’m not sure how to function as a filmmaker any other way. Which is a long way of saying that in terms of my shooting ratio, minutes used versus minutes unused, for this film I was pretty good. I think it’s because I know this place, this conversational climate, this overall “territory” so well, that I had a good sense of what was essential to film, or just what was interesting and — at least to me — thought-provoking.

I didn’t set out to make a more traditional documentary, which would have to expend time explaining at every turn, or featured public figures, per se. The process reminded me of when I was 23 and making my first film, about my family. My shooting ratio was good due to my familiarity with their speech patterns, their humor and jokes, and my ability to read the room and sense when it was just not a good time for them to film (body language saying “go away,” etc.). So, when it comes to Michigan at least that yea, I think my familiarity helped me.

I think the only time when this “good ratio” was different was on election day; I had three other crews across the southern counties of Lower Michigan, and by and large it was sort of low-key and uneventful. Of course, we had to prepare for chaos — as an open-carry state guns were allowed into polling locations, so there was reason to be on edge. But millions had voted early, or by mail, so election day was relatively uneventful. Thankfully! Except, unexpectedly, when it came to the leads my PA and I kept following. I happened upon the Secretary of State, as well as an ongoing political standoff outside a polling location in Macomb County, while everyone sang “Hallelujah.” Almost every day I filmed prior to election day became a scene. Now, once the election happened, that was real chaos, and there were several days that did not make it into the film. It also became monotonous and scary. I worked with sound designer Jeremiah Moore to make that clear.

Filmmaker: Likewise you employ a trove of audio, mostly from call-in talk radio shows it seems. How many recordings did you end up working with? And how did you go about pairing the voices with the images onscreen?

McCabe: I started developing and working with a large radio archive back in 2018, initially and primarily for an ongoing feature film of multiple chapters, Civil War Surveillance Poems. There is something about the bodiless voices that I love; the way we have to listen and, deprived of visual information, immerse in a different kind of human reality.

The first chapter of that, Civil War Surveillance Poems – Part 1, screened at True/False in 2020, and then at other festivals. With some Covid hiccups, technical stops and starts – and a tenure-track faculty position – I’ve continued, with the help of others, to expand that radio archive to thousands of hours. Long story short, the footage shot for 23 Mile — all of the verité from Michigan in 2020 — was initially intended to comprise the last chapter of Civil War Surveillance Poems; and as such just be, like, 15-20 minutes. But then that year went on in Michigan — with the armed anti-lockdown protests, the Whitmer kidnapping plot, the election that never ended until Christmas (maybe).

But last March, when we hit an assembly of almost three hours, my assistant editor and co-producer Lucas Neufeld turned to me and we sort of finished each other’s thoughts — it needed to separate and be its own creature. The radio was a natural way to ground the film in time, and the news cycle, while also bringing in a variety of thoughts and voices of “the people.” As for the pairing, it’s all non-sync filmmaking cookery. Visceral “go with your gut” and try different things.

Filmmaker: How did you approach all these often armed participants, including militia members from the boogaloo boys and Three Percenters, and get them to agree to speak to you on camera? (Though they weren’t all so intimidating, as even the guy from the news station says he’s not supposed to be talking to you, and then immediately proceeds to tell you all about the FBI raid he’s covering.) Were folks just desperate for connection during the lockdowns? Did you not ever fear for your own safety as well?

McCabe: As a teacher I’m probably more afraid of that one quiet but angry, invisibly disturbed or distraught student who you’d never suspect of anything, let alone of having weapons or pulling out a gun in the classroom. And I say that as someone who’s taught at numerous schools over the past eight years. Though I do generally feel safe day in and day out, regardless of how safe one might think their school is, the facts tell us it can happen anywhere in the U.S.

But those guys openly carrying in a state that allows open-carry? No, not the guys I met, not in the circumstances I met them; I was not afraid. We were in public, at the capitol, where the state police had a presence. Also, one can assume that there were surveillance cameras everywhere. Personally, I’d rather know and see the weapons and track the trouble than be unable and powerless to deal with the concealed and unknown.

Besides, it simply felt more of a performance, a show, or like these events were occasions for “weapons enthusiasts” to all show up in costume. There was one person who I did visit and interview for a few hours, and I knew it was unhealthy for me not to be concerned; to be clear, I was nervous. So I definitely bookended with calls to a field producer just as a safety measure.

However, I could see my anxiety show up in the footage when we were color-grading the film, and someone else — the amazing Robert Arnold — had to correct my camera flaws. I started to notice that whenever I was with the heavily armed, or at the post-election “Stop the Steal” rallies, my finger tended to fiddle with the aperture or focus almost involuntarily. When I was filming protests of Detroit Will Breathe, the Detroit-based, Black Lives Matter-aligned group, though, my aperture and focus were completely calm. So maybe my “fight or flight” instinct located itself entirely on the lens.

As far as how I approached…I have no idea. I’m really no different while filming than I am with anyone else — a friend, acquaintance, etc. Sometimes people would approach me, like the guy I talk to at length at the boogaloo rally, just to see if I had questions. (Which I appreciated!) Honestly, I just have the gift (or curse) of curiosity and gab. But yeah, I think the lockdown was part of it. I think we all did or thought things that were a little out of our usual routine. Maybe it was a sense of “YOLO,” or just everyone fearing where things were headed. Like, “It’s all going to hell fast so, hey, you might as well hang with a militia!”

Filmmaker: One of my favorite scenes involves the white, AK-47-toting militia members surrounding the Black guy on the steps of the state capitol in solidarity as security while he gives a pro-Second Amendment speech in which he repeatedly references “women, men, and whatever they identify as” as having the right to bear arms. Besides being a mindbender, it made me curious to hear how you think your own queer identity and POV impacted this particular film. (Including the fact that if you don’t experience yourself as binary you tend not to see the world in black and white terms, and are perhaps more alert to the shades of grey in others.)

McCabe: That began when I was just walking my dog and scrolling Facebook and saw a notification for an event at the capitol in Lansing. As I recall, it was for a joint rally of boogaloo, LGBTQ something and Black Guns Matter. It started in 70 minutes, I was 90 minutes away, so I hauled it out there. (So when you hear me heavily breathing at the beginning, that was real!)

In my limited experience — and I want to emphasize that, as I think anyone who’s not “in” a group has limits — groups like the “boogaloo boys” and “Three Percenters” do not seem to be cohesive or organized groups whatsoever, in the sense that not every local or geographical group resembles another one. Sometimes it just means buying a Hawaiian or “III” T-shirt, or a “boogaloo” patch for your camo jacket. Nor, often, has someone who calls themselves a “boogaloo boy” (or “boogaloo person!”) ever been to a meeting, or know anyone else in “the group.”

I do think this scene changed me. Up in that group of 15 or so heavily-armed militia-people on the steps, you had a woman with a hijab, more than a few men of color, and a group holding an inclusive LBTQIA flag with “Don’t tread on me” stitched in the middle. It’s like a time-based container of anti-reductive multitudes. Personally, it voices so many things I think about, on a daily basis which you so eloquently articulated! I can only guess how my identity – visually articulated or otherwise – impacts anything. But I film or photograph what I’m curious about, what I have questions about, what’s interesting – in all of the ways – to my brain. So I’m fairly certain that as a nonbinary queer, I’m far more inclined to keep filming when I see disruption, binary-busting and “anti-monolithic stuff,” for lack of better words.

I’ll add that when my NYC-based friends and filmmaker friends ask why I keep moving back to Michigan, or why it’s my preferred place to be, I try to convey to them exactly what this scene encapsulated. I just can never predict, ever, what someone I meet there believes or what they will say based on race, perceived class, gender, religion or education. When I’m there, I have the most profound political and life discussions. I think that’s because people in Michigan, particularly of the southern part of Lower Peninsula, are regularly interacting with folks across political, religious and racial lines.

Filmmaker: Obviously you’ve decided to debut this film in an election year, one currently starring the same two candidates. That makes me wonder what you want audiences to ultimately take away from 23 Mile. Are there specific lessons you garnered along your journey and that you hope we can all learn from?

McCabe: Yes, I do feel very lucky that we were able to finish this in time for an election year. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few times “we” — the media, the collective attention, the big cities (maybe) — pay primary attention to the Midwest or, frankly, to the rest of the country. It’s an opportune time to be open and to blow up dysfunctionally reductive narratives. As an editor and filmmaker, I genuinely don’t know if I’m good at chiseling away at footage to create take-aways (and there’s certainly a lot of institutional pressure to do so). The beauty of making a doc for just around $50,000 is that you can let your footage breathe, and let people have their say without sound-biting, which in turn reveals all of our human contradictions and inconsistencies. I think there is a reason why I let people talk on camera in their scenes for awhile, without a cut or interruption to our listening. And it’s something an ex-girlfriend told me years ago: “You gotta talk to people. People are surprising. But you won’t know that unless you talk to them.” (My dad sort of lived like that too. He could talk to anyone.) I don’t invest hope in celebrity or leaders too much, but I do have hope in people. I guess I would love it if people questioned their own biases more often and remembered to give that stranger the benefit of the doubt. Those are some of the things I thought about while making this film, so hopefully that comes through.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham