Ian Inaba on Stolen and Influenced Elections

Susan Gerhard September 25, 2006

After the Y2K and 2004 presidential elections, we all learned to expect the unexpected. By now, more than a few realized they better actually begin to document the “unexpected” — as it becomes clear just how much pre-planning really goes into making these election days so very mixed up. With yet another election bound to supply more sets of the usual disasters, Ian Inaba’s documentary, “American Blackout,” makes the case that election “accidents,” especially when it comes to the U.S.‘s African American voting population, aren’t exactly random occurrences. Using the orchestrated campaigns against Cynthia McKinney’s elections as a starting point, turning back to history as a guide, and hopping through a variety of regional debacles as evidence, the film offers the public a shot of adrenaline and a little advice for everyone who cares about this election season: Wake up.

Inaba’s experienced more than a few twists and turns with the film and its subject matter since it premiered at Sundance last January. As you know, Cynthia McKinney’s had a far too-publicized run-in with the Capitol Hill police, and lost another election. Inaba’s added the epilogues, and created DVD extras offering the nefarious back stories to these multiple McKinney crises. He’s also engaged in his own grassroots campaigns to get the word out about voter mismanagement, visiting hotspots like Ohio, creating shorter, information-focused activist versions of the film to screen through NGOs and unions, and developed a campaign to help document and distribute visual information on the upcoming election in real time. Ask Inaba himself about it when he participates in a city-wide live Q&A on the film during this Wednesday during SF360 San Francisco Movie Night (for information on how to find a doc-watching party, or start your own, at Ironweed Film Club). I spoke with the director last Friday, when he’d just arrived in New York.

SF360: A lot’s gone down since you started this project. Can you describe what happened in the very last election Cynthia McKinney was involved with — the one not shown in your film?

Ian Inaba: We were actually down in Atlanta. It was very interesting, because once again, what we documented in the film was mimicked in this election. Which was that Republican voters once again organized and crossed over, and had a very well orchestrated and highly financed campaign to remove her from office. We actually then updated the film with that new ending. Her story is one of election manipulation and media complicity. We had a case with her again where the media had decided, it seemed, that they were going to also participate in getting rid of her. We want the discussion to be about voter suppression and voter manipulation, instead of Cynthia McKinney, but if you look at her example, it appears the media did not want to give her a fair shake.

A negative image was created around Cynthia McKinney and the Capitol Hill police incident. Because that incident became a factor in our distribution of the film, I went to D.C. to try and figure out exactly what happened. In the process, I interviewed four Capitol Hill police officers who painted a very different picture than what was being told by news media about what occurred. They painted a very clear picture of racism on Capitol Hill. They believe she was directly targeted in that incident. We recorded that story separately on Guerrilla News Network, and I’ve put that interview on the DVD as an extra. There was no news outlet that was willing to break that story. Only the New York Times in their coverage of us opening in Atlanta mentioned it, but they don’t focus on it. Here again was a story and a factor in her election which was clearly something that the journalists were reporting on, and yet there was this additional piece of information, an alternative viewpoint, and none of them wanted to take steps to correct or alter how they were reporting.

SF360: It seems the story is ongoing and you could keep adding and adding to it.

Inaba: After Cynthia McKinney’s election, that was as much as I could do for that piece. This is a continuing story. I was fortunate enough to meet another filmmaker in Ohio who is making another voter disenfranchisement documentary, and we’re looking at partnering with him. I can provide him some know how and knowledge of how we captured the 2004 footage, and we’re looking at setting something up very real time and unique on capturing issues for video for this election. It looks like the torch will pass and there will be other people providing coverage for this election.

We know that the film has been very effective in opening people’s eyes to the topic. They want to know this information. We have to get to the situation where this information is recorded real time instead of it taking months or years for the film to come out to show the reality of what is happening in these elections. None of the footage in my film was released or the information — none of the portrayal of election — none of that was given by major news outlets in. Why does it take this long to get these alternative viewpoints out there?

SF360: I know I heard about these issues from Greg Palast on the radio and in lefty publications. But it was so much more powerful to see it as a narrative piece with your visuals and context.

Inaba: The visual element in this country is required. We’re looking at Internet distribution for some of the efforts that we’re just now putting into place. We’re just trying to document and report what happens. These stories need to be told real time. It’s almost an experiment in journalism.

SF360: Has the response changed from when you opened the film in Sundance last January to now?

Inaba: People are damn pissed off and fired up after they see the film. The reaction hasn’t quite changed. We are still seeing a strong reaction to the film.

SF360: With the elections so close, what’s your release plan?

Inaba: We went after a very condensed release model for the film. It’s in theaters now, but we’re also just starting to ship DVDs. We knew that when you’re taking out an independent film like this, you have to maximize any type of media exposure and try to condense your distribution to take advantage of that. We have Ironweed’s film of the month, and we’re doing the film club night with SF360. Disinformation is our DVD distributor. We’re also self-distributing, and organizations are doing bulk buys.

We’re working with a number of grassroots organizations that we’ll be announcing very soon who are taking the film out mainly to their constituents. This is a combination of nonprofits and NGOs as well as labor unions and even some political orgs. We’ve just seen in these past few weeks an upsurge in interest in the film and subject matter.

SF360: Have you had to shift the campaign for the film now that Cynthia’s race isn’t the issue?

Inaba: The campaign for the film really hasn’t shifted at all. We always made the film to get this information out to people. Cynthia McKinney just happened to be the main subject for the film. We always planned on having a large grassroots outreach for the film, which we’re just now kicking off. We’ve had a rocky road. It’s taken some unexpected turns along the way. We’ve always been going down the same path, to release the film in theaters and have a strong grassroots push for the film with the election.

SF360: What should we be most frightened about in this election?

Inaba: As we were on the road with the film, we noted the public interest in voter disenfranchisement is very high. We’ve been kind of out there trying to warn people that this issue is going to be a factor. It’s something that hasn’t been addressed yet. We’re trying to raise public discussion. It’s been strange, because we kind of expected more organized or institutional response around the subject matter, and for a very long time, people were not really wanting to address the subject on both sides of the political aisle. We’ve been out there pushing, and only now is it that people are realizing that voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression is going to occur and they are now becoming more attuned to the issue. One of the things that triggered that was the Maryland election that just occurred a few weeks ago, where we saw thousands of voters disenfranchised once again. They attempted to combat it on election day. But it appeared that there were once again political tactics.