'Working in Protest': How Two Filmmakers Made a Gripping Feature from 30 Years of Footage
Michael Galinksy and Suki Hawley took a stance to document, without mediation, over 30 years of that American First Amendment exercise: the protest.
Galinksy and Hawley of Rumur have been capturing protests since 1987. Galinksy had just graduated high school, and the first project he ever shot on his camera was a KKK march through Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It wasn’t until many years later that he and Hawley developed the film and realized the importance of the photographs, including them as a scene in their upcoming documentary Working in Protest; the photographs follow Galinsky's footage of a protest to a KKK Trump-Election Victory Parade in December 2016.
The power of the portrait they created comes from not mediating the footage as activists or antagonists. “[Protests] get over-sensationalized or under-sensationalized through the mass media,” said Hawley to No Film School. “So it seemed really important to us to just be present for these events, even if we didn't have an outlet for them.” “We've always tried not to be an activist in the work, but to be observers,” explained Galinsky about the objective style. “It doesn't have any champion in the moment. Activists feel like it's not doing what it's supposed to do. So it exists in this weird space. But I've come to see that work actually gains so much more value later on for exactly that reason. It allows you to just be in that space.”
Galinksy and Hawley sat down with No Film School to talk about that and more on the eve of the film’s New York premiere at the Brooklyn Film Festival this weekend.
NFS: What is your strategy when trying to film a protest without a point-of-view, but rather as an observer, capturing what's going on as a whole?
Galinksy: It’s been an evolving thing. One thing to do is to hang on the periphery, because it's on the periphery that the real conversations happen. Even the very first time I went down to Occupy, I just literally asked everybody who was on the edges of the park, "Why are you here?" It was similar to the approach in [the footage from the on-the-street shoot in 2005] where we asked, "What do you think about the war in Iraq?" It's literally just asking this very open question.
Through that process, it's really become about not trying to figure out what it is, but just observing and then following. Having been doing this for awhile, it's like, if you can be present, crazy shit just keeps unfolding right in front of my camera. I think it has to do with not trying to make something happen but just being there, and then it happens.
For example, a friend of mine's a stringer for Reuters, so I grabbed a ride with him to a Trump rally in Greensboro. But even as I went, I thought a) I didn't think I would be able to get in because I didn't have credentials like he did, but b) I was imagining it a lot like Jeff Krulik's Heavy Metal Parking Lot, where it's about a Judas Priest concert but it's really about all these people in the parking lot, and how interesting they are. So even before I got there and knew I wouldn't get in, my thought was I'm making Trump Parking Lot, which is what I did.
That's where you also get really interesting conversations. I ended up talking to a lot of the “Three Percenters” and the people there who were protesting in support of Trump, whereas the people who were protesting Trump were so angry that they weren't being good communicators. They don't come off all that well in the piece, even though much of my thinking was aligned with theirs. The rage that was being expressed wasn't actually very coherent or useful in terms of trying to create a narrative.
"if you can be present, crazy shit just keeps unfolding right in front of my camera."
Hawley: Michael shoots and I edit, and we direct together. What's really amazing is that the goal with what we've decided to document is to show the emotional truths of being at that protest, and so not having a point-of-view ahead of time and not trying to....
Galinksy: Not to explain it too much.
Hawley: Because when you're in those situations, it's kind of confusing and it's chaotic. You don't know exactly what to think and you kind of align yourself with people that probably share your values. But what does that mean, exactly? So interesting things happen when you are open and you listen.
What I've noticed is that Michael's shooting has become even more powerful in that way. As an editor, I'm just like, "This is gold." He was right there at the right moment when there's this protest at UNC. Very few MAGA guys were there, and they were wearing their MAGA hats. Everyone else was protesting the Confederate statue.
And so in this moment, Michael's just shooting something and someone grabs the hat and flings it into the crowd. And the guy's surprised and the police are like, "Well, I can't help you because that would just cause chaos." And so it's almost like it was planned for Michael to capture it on film. But he was just was there.
Galinksy: I was actually filming and then I moved to the side. People put a banner in front of this guy to try and crowd him out, and I did a little Dolly move from one side of it to the other. And right as I get to where he is, someone snatches his hat. And I didn't even see it, and then I Dolly back, and then the cops rush in. And so it's kind of like, "What the hell just happened?" I don't even know. But then I guess that goes to the chaos aspect.
You go into a chaotic situation and it remains chaotic. As you observe it, you start to make sense of it. One of the points of what we were trying to do is create these videos and get them up quickly so that other people who didn't have a chance to get to these events could see them and have some sense in it that was unmediated like the media does, or an activist does.
NFS: Is there a method you adopt to talk to people without letting your own opinions influence the conversation?
Galinksy: They take one look at me and they know that I'm not a three percenter. Or they know that I'm not a Trump supporter. So there is an interesting dynamic where they are a little bit of suspect of me. But I'm not really asking pointed questions or making arguments. I'm just simply saying, "Tell me more."
I really am trying to create a space where conversation can happen, and it's not so much with me but with the viewer. And most of the time what I'm also trying to do is not so much put myself in the situation to even ask a question, but trying to be in places where things are happening and I can just literally float there and observe it, and so you get it in that manner. And I think that's more and more in the presence of, is to go to these events literally just to observe, not even to interact.
Hawley: Which kind of leads to the amazing scene and the very end of the film that Michael knew had to capture. He had been shooting all day at the inauguration and all of this stuff and gone here and there and talked to lots of different Trump supporters.
Galinksy: It's just observing mostly, but then I was done. I put up my camera. I was going to the train to get a drink.
Hawley: And he saw something unfolding in front of Union Square.
Galinksy: I had just called Suki and said, "I'm done. I'm gonna go get a drink." And I was going to the train to get a drink, to meet some friends. And these MAGA supporters were yelling at these protesters and just being really nasty. And it was starting to get heated, and so I was like, "Fuck!" And I pulled out my camera. It took me a minute to set up...
Hawley: "Fuck," because he knew he needed to keep shooting.
NFS: You're not gonna get that drink just yet.
Galinksy: As I walked up, there was this ugly back-and-forth going on. It started to really escalate, but then there started to be some listening. One guy was like, "Yeah, I do think we should be the most powerful nuclear power because then we can keep the world safe." And then this guy says, "Well, who's the only person that's ever used nuclear weapons?" And the guy's like, "Us. Oh, damn." And that started this conversation, and by the end of it started to be, "Oh yeah, I agree with you."
Hawley: And it took place in front of the camera. When you shoot, you're trying to find the conversation rather than trying to find the point to be made. And so when it started to escalate and then de-escalate and actually become a conversation, it's actually quite hopeful and it's a really hopeful moment and a hopeful way to end the film.
Galinksy: It's the only hopeful moment in the whole film! The last guy speaking is from Venezuela but he was a Marine and he's the one who really got the back-and-forth going. He basically says, "Look, I just watched my country be destroyed by people not listening to each other."
Hawley: Being too far Left.
Galinksy: Being too far Left and too far Right and we have to find a middle ground. He didn't say, "And I think we can." But that open question is left, and it really did feel like, "Oh my God, thank God I pulled out the camera," because at least now it's a film.
NFS: How was the process of piecing all the scenes together. The film is not chronological or anything, but is built more thematically.
Hawley: The idea is that it feels like a work-in-progress. It's not that it should feel unfinished, but that the universe is set early on, that we are dropping into situations and you're not going to know everything that's going on. Things that are happening now have come full circle and happened many, many years ago. And so the idea of making bookends, bookending the film initially, in a cold open kind of way, was something that came up early on and seemed to work to connect the themes.
I can't stress enough how important it is to not make people think that they're going get all the answers right away. Because documentaries these days, they all pretty much do that. They answer all the questions that you have, answer them all for you! They have a point-of-view and tell you what to think. Knowing that we were going somewhat outside the box with this, it was meant to feel rough and tumble from the beginning, and that's how I approached it in terms of editing.
Galinksy: I think in some ways, the film is a reaction to expectation. There's an expectation that a film and a filmmaker is supposed to do something very specific, which is to tell you a very specific story and create a very clear narrative that you can follow. Each of these pieces increasingly went in a reaction to that direction. By the end, it creates its own sense of narrative. I think what's one of the interesting things about the film itself.
It doesn't do what films are supposedly supposed to do. It works much like the filming works. It’s observational. It allows you to be there, which then requires some work on you, the audience's behalf, in terms of creating what the narrative is. And that narrative is then a reflection of what your own point-of-view is. It doesn't look or smell like an experimental film, but in a sense, it's an experiment in trying to do it in a different way.
"I can't stress enough how important it is to not make people think that they're going get all the answers..."
NFS: Having documented all these protests over time gives you both a unique vantage point on our culture and filmmaking within it. What advice can you give to other filmmakers?
Galinksy: Well, if you want to be successful in the moment, do not listen to us!
Hawley: That's what I feel like saying. "Don't, don't listen to us." Because, again, the culture is not doing films or supporting films the way we are doing them now.
Galinksy: There’s value in what we do, and it's really nice to see that value reveal itself. Know that it's a little frustrating when you're doing it and people aren't getting it.
Hawley: We're aware of that, and we're trying to remain open to creating possibilities for a different way of speaking and a different way of listening and a different way of watching and consuming media. It's just not obvious to other people yet.