It’s almost Election Day in the US. No matter where you are in the world, the results of this election will likely have some impact on you, and you’ve certainly heard some news about it. If there’s one thing that both sides agree on in this oh-so-contentious year, it’s that it has been one of the least predictable in our history. Perfect fodder for a future film.
As filmmakers, elections are a natural draw because of their inherent immediacy, contention, drama, and real stakes. (I have been working on an election documentary myself for the past several years, Battle for Jerusalem.) So where else besides movies would we turn to get some perspective on why elections matter, different campaigns around the world, and how we got to where we are today?
Here are seven global election docs to start with as we ramp up for the big day tomorrow.
1. Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed (dir. Shola Lynch, 2005)
A predecessor to both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Shirley Chisholm was the first African-American woman to run for President of the United States. The Brooklyn Congresswoman and former school teacher campaigned for the Democratic nomination in 1972—the year when the voting age had just changed from 21 to 18, ushering in millions of new voters with new values. Lynch’s film, which premiered at Sundance in 2004, follows Chisholm’s groundbreaking bid with archival footage, interviews, and her own narration. Looking at the influential demographics in recent US elections, Chisholm was almost prophetic in her observation that "we cannot continue to take things as they are when we see that the government is not responsive to certain segments of the population."
2. My Country, My Country (dir. Laura Poitras, 2006)
As contentious as the US elections might seem, they get jolted into stark perspective when you hear about militants threatening to "wash the streets with the blood of voters" in Laura Poitras’ depiction of the 2005 elections in Iraq. This film was one of the first of her "9/11 trilogy," putting Poitras on the map and garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. The doc follows a candidate from the Sunni political minority (and former prisoner of Sadaam Hussein) who attempts a precarious run for office in Iraq’s first democratic elections in the midst of US occupation.
3. Sweet Micky for President (dir. Ben Patterson, 2015)
This film, about the presidential bid in Haiti by major Haitian pop star and outlandish performer Michel Martelly, AKA “Sweet Micky,” starts out as an unlikely underdog tale that evolves into a serious political thriller. Its drama is enhanced by the fact that Martelly’s biggest proponent (and the film’s producer) is Fugees founder Pras Michel, in the same year that fellow Fugee Wyclef Jean enters the race himself. The film and election interweave seemingly superficial celebrity drama with the real stakes: a country grasping at democracy and stability after decades of brutal political dictatorships and natural disasters.
4. War Room (dir. Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, 1993)
Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker are stalwarts of the documentary craft, with well over 50 credits between them. In this vérité documentary, they provide intimate introductions and access to US political figures who would become stalwarts in their own rights in the ensuing decades—namely, strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, who helped usher Bill Clinton into office in 1992. The film, heralded as an inspiration to the hit series The West Wing, allows us to be flies on the wall as headlines are spun and decisions are made. Although it all went down before the emergence of social media, The War Room can still be considered a primer on how modern political campaigns are waged.
5. Our Brand is Crisis (dir. Rachel Boynton, 2005)
More than a decade after War Room, James Carville figured into another eye-opening political documentary. Our Brand is Crisis follows the journey of Carville and a team of American political strategists as they are hired to consult on the campaign of Bolivian presidential candidate Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada ("Goni") in 2002. While highlighting the manipulative brilliance of American-style campaign marketing, it also serves as a warning against the potentially catastrophic effects of US involvement in foreign elections. Winner of the IDA Award for Best Feature Documentary, the film served as inspiration for the 2015 David Gordon Green drama of the same name, starring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton.
6. Street Fight (dir. Marshall Curry, 2005)
Another film that introduces us to a modern American political figure early in his rise is Street Fight. Before Cory Booker was a US Senator, dynamic Democratic pundit, and would-be future presidential candidate, he was engaging in a scrappy, brass knuckles battle to become the mayor of Newark, New Jersey in 2002. The film shows us an upstart candidate, running against a longtime incumbent, living in one of Newark’s low-income housing projects and learning firsthand what an entrenched political machine looks like. He ultimately lost the race. But even if the film highlighted a political failure, Booker has publicly acknowledged that it helped him build an ultimately successful national presence.
Alexandra Pelosi and George W. Bush in 'Journeys with George'
7. Journeys with George (dir. Alexandra Pelosi and Aaron Lubarsky, 2003)
An American election cycle doesn’t go by without the media playing the blame game for bias against both sides' candidates. (It seems that Sarah Palin’s term “lamestream media” has stuck around much longer than her tenure in public life did.) Journeys with George is a uniquely intimate take on campaign coverage, as its protagonist and co-director, Alexandra Pelosi, chronicles her own assignment on the campaign trail for NBC with then-candidate George W. Bush in 2000. Pelosi is the daughter of Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (whose service as Speaker of the House began during Bush’s presidency), which may be why Bush paid her special attention with disarmingly charming banter. More lighthearted than the other films on this list, Journeys with George shows that when it comes down to it, we do have the capacity to value each other’s humanity from all the way across the aisles.