History doesn't document itself. But in a time when almost everyone has a video camera of some kind, at least in their phone, and so many of us comment on every little thing through a blog or a Facebook status or a Tweet (now considered worthy of archiving by the Library of Congress), it does seem like this is true. Just imagine how many more comprehensive and detailed history books could be written and cable series produced if all this technology existed during the other 50,000 years of human record? What if you could compile a documentary out of video footage captured around the nation the day George Washington was elected President or the day the U.S. Civil War ended?
The thing is, most past events would also require today's speed of information to get the sort of history produced as '11/4/08,' a collaborative documentary that shows what thousands of people were doing and how they felt the day -- and the very second, simultaneously and altogether -- that Barack Obama was voted in as the first African-American President of the United States. The film was curated and edited by Jeff Deutchman out of submissions shot by 25 other camerapersons, including professional filmmakers like Henry Joost ('Catfish'), Joe Swanberg ('Hannah Takes the Stairs') and Margaret Brown ('The Order of Myths'), and shares glimpses into individual and crowd experiences from Homer, Alaska, to New Dehli, India.
Most of these experiences involve hopeful, and later jubilant, Obama fans, as they vote, volunteer, party and take witness of the zeitgeist of that moment. There are a few relatively grounded and skeptical subjects who doubt much will change for themselves or the world afterward. Some of these people are in places like Berlin and Dubai, where there is ironically also a man excited for "a Muslim" to be President. Domestically African-Americans tell what an Obama victory would mean to them. CNN is on everywhere. Children are seen jumping for joy for their future -- or are they merely feeling triumphant because the atmosphere compels them to be? Young adults dance in the street. One woman exposes her breasts.
The film is not just an aggregate of clips, though. Deutchman (IFC Films Acquisition Manager by day) finds a chronological narrative in his cut, which displays a three act structure of building enthusiasm, drunken celebrations (one of which turns rather violent) and finally a quiet conclusion that, with its near-end montage of a Geneva sunrise followed by slum kids in India, seems to tell us that even history has a morning after, and it's just like any other. At least that's how I saw the film this time around. The fun thing about '11/4/08' is that, as Deutchman admittedly intends, it's like a Rorschach test. I've seen the documentary twice now, months apart, and it seemed quite different on a second viewing. Years from now it'll be something else, and years after that, too.
Also, the film will at every stage be viewed subjectively distinct to different viewers. One prominent review of the film somewhat negatively writes off '11/4/08' as a "multitude of mundane conversation." That may not make it sound entertaining, but it's not necessarily a bad thing. Outside of their classification as major events or turning points, many specific historic moments have probably been filled with the mundane. Imagine films titled '7/4/76' and '7/20/69,' which could also, depending on the editing, include a lot of uninteresting moments. Just think how humdrum Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald's similarly conceptualized "user-generated" film about a non-meaningful date (titled 'Life in a Day,' but '7/24/10' could have worked, too) will be.
I like to think of the content of '11/4/08,' despite its editorial manipulation, as similar to the "actuality" films of the Lumiere brothers and other early producers of cinema depicting everyday life. It doesn't need to be touching or enjoyable. It just has to be, for curiosity or posterity or whatever else you want to make of it.
Of course, this particular film is predominantly what Deutchman has made of it, and if you don't like it you are free to cut your own version of the footage seen in his film and/or other submitted clips available to stream or download from the ongoing project's website. You're also encouraged to upload your own videos if you shot anything that day (I still wonder if, like with other documentaries and literary histories, re-enactments of the day, whether faithful or products of subjective recall, should be accepted), in order to be a part of what Deutchman calls a democratic form of writing history. As far as I can tell, nobody has made their own cut, short or feature-length, but I really hope someone eventually does. I'm eager to see other curator's perspective of the footage, the moment, the date. What does your '11/4/08' look like?
Jeff Deutchman's version of '11/4/08' is now available in VOD formats, including those from Amazon and YouTube.