So much has happened since Donald Trump took office it is easy to forget that it wasn’t meant to be this way.
Pundits, pollsters and the public thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. Even many Trump supporters weren’t optimistic.
We all know what happened, but the new documentary 11/8/16, from director Jeff Deutchman, offers a glimpse into why that might have happened. His film follows a number of voters from a variety of backgrounds, locations and political leanings, on election day last year.
Told over three parts – morning, afternoon, evening – we meet a student organizer for Hillary Clinton in Ohio, a diehard Trump supporter in Massachusetts and an independent candidate in Vermont, right the way through to a free spirit in Hawaii, who is barely aware an election is taking place.
“Each character represents I think something succinct about this country,” Deutchman told the Guardian. “We wanted to have a broad spectrum of subjects.”
Deutchman commissioned 50 film-makers to follow 50 different people on the day of the election. He spent months poring through the footage and whittled that down to the 16 people we see in the film.
The result is a series of vignettes that takes the documentary beyond the standard Clinton voter v Trump voter trope.
In Chicago a woman named Vetress, a real estate agent and local politician, is voting for Clinton, but isn’t overly excited about it. She doesn’t believe anything will change for black people if she wins.
In California, undocumented immigrant and community organizer Jesus watches with horror as the election results come in. Jesus spends the day rallying fellow undocumented immigrants, each of them terrified about what a Trump victory could bring.
A man named Boots, who is running for lieutenant governor in Vermont on behalf of the leftwing Liberty Union party, offers a counter to traditional politics. Boots, wearing a T-shirt that says: “Annoying people since 1943”, is delighted when he and his running mate end up with 2.8% of the vote.
Deutchman said the format particularly lent itself to exploring Trump supporters.
“There was a tendency immediately after the election in a lot of the political dialogue to characterize Trump voters, to explain Trump voters as the forgotten white working class,” Deutchman said.
“And I think that there’s some truth to that, that that is one kind of Trump voter, but I guess my takeaway from making this film is that there’s a variety of different kinds of Trump voters.
“There are several represented in this film, and I’m sure there’s a host of other types that are not represented in the film.”
That said, the role of stereotypical Trump voter is filled in the documentary by Tom, a business owner from Franklin, Massachusetts, who has a huge house and a sparkling SUV, but is worried that he would “have a tough time making ends meet” if Clinton wins.
Tom, who wears a “Make America Great Again” cap throughout the entire film, is one of the least nuanced characters in the film, but his presence is required to show the kind of voters who did exist in 2016 – those fueled by rightwing fake news, Breitbart talking points and conspiracy theories.
At one point Tom suggests Clinton would “import tens of thousand of Muslim people that hate our country” and later questions sexual assault allegations against Trump by suggesting: “I don’t think a guy like Trump needs to rape a woman. The guy’s got so much money it doesn’t matter.”
One thing apparent from 11/8/16 – something that with the benefit of hindsight pundits perhaps should have been more aware of – is the enthusiasm gap between Clinton and Trump supporters.
Tom, and Florida-based Trump supporter Adrian, are desperate to cast their vote for Trump. They are convinced he will win and change the country for the better.
Many of the Clinton supporters, however, talk more about their fear of a Trump presidency rather than championing Clinton’s policies or vision.
“There were a lot of important and unusual reasons to be afraid of a Trump presidency, I think that the Clinton campaign really leaned into that as the overarching sort of messaging,” Deutchman said.
“And that messaging did really have an effect, I think, on the way that a lot of liberals and Hillary voters talked about their reasons.
“So I do think that we hear a lot from liberals in the movie about how Trump’s racist, Trump’s sexist, Trump is dangerous – and by the way I think all of those things are true – but it’s not necessarily the most effective message.”
Aside from the lingering sense of what might have been, some of the scenes most likely to stick in the mind are those exploring people’s relationship with voting.
One of the most touching characters is Anthony Ray, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 30 years on death row before being exonerated in 2015. It is Anthony Ray’s first time voting since he was imprisoned.
“Today I’m going to have a voice again,” he tells the camera, proudly showing off his Alabama voting card. Anthony Ray votes early, and wears his “I voted” sticker on his forehead for the rest of the day. For him, the election is more about the process than the result.
Hana, the student Clinton supporter, is thrilled to vote for the first time and the passion she has shines through as she goes door-knocking in the morning and wields a megaphone in the afternoon.
In Hawaii, meanwhile a man called Vernon – “I may be houseless but I’m not homeless”, he says – spends the day relaxing in his tent and swimming in the Pacific. Vernon, an ex-felon, wasn’t able to vote, but doesn’t seem to mind.
He isn’t even entirely sure who is running. As the results come in, Vernon’s girlfriend tells him Trump is running ahead of Clinton.
“Donald Trump?” Vernon says, as he tinkers with a motorcycle.
After witnessing the stress, tears and heartbreak of the rest of the characters, Vernon provides the perfect antidote to an incredibly traumatic election. Maybe ignorance really is bliss.
- 11/8/16 is released in US cinemas on 3 November with a UK date yet to be announced