Luther College Chips

Documentary examines lessons from 2016 presidential election

Jacob Smith worked as a Senate staffer for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders before producing and directing a documentary about Sanders' campaign titled

Jacob Smith worked as a Senate staffer for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders before producing and directing a documentary about Sanders' campaign titled "Waking the Sleeping Giant."

Forrest Stewart (‘20) | Chips

Forrest Stewart (‘20) | Chips

Jacob Smith worked as a Senate staffer for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders before producing and directing a documentary about Sanders' campaign titled "Waking the Sleeping Giant."

Forrest Stewart, Staff Writer

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Producer and director of the 2017 documentary “Waking the Sleeping Giant” Jacob Smith visited Luther for a screening of his film in Valders 206 on Nov. 15. The screening was followed by audience questions.

Smith previously served as the mayor of Golden, Colorado and worked as a Senate staffer for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “Waking the Sleeping Giant” is Smith’s first feature-length film.

Told over the span of several years and focused on Sanders’ presidential campaign, the documentary examines the current state of the political progressive movement in the United States through the stories of activists and politicians. The film’s subjects include a Black Lives Matter activist from Los Angeles, a rural West Virginia state delegate candidate, two millennial activists from the Democracy Spring movement who led demonstrations advocating for campaign finance reform, and Sanders.

In an interview, Smith said he intentionally focused his film around a diverse selection of people.

“You get to know some people in the film that almost certainly have experiences different than yours, whoever you are,” Smith said. “So a lot of people come out of the film with some appreciation for circumstances that are very different than their own.”

Smith used the documentary to highlight how incorporating such a wide variety of people in a single party can led to problems, as it did for the Democrats in the 2016 election.

“One of the rifts in the left is between what CNN Political Commentator Van Jones calls…the white left and the black left, by which he means this Bernie [Sanders] and Elizabeth Warren-style economic class focused left and then the racial justice left,” Smith said. “Even now, we still see this fight over whether we can focus on economics first and solve that before we get to racism, or if we have to deal with racism too because it’s a separate thing. That gap is a real problem. It was a problem in the election.”

Smith’s film analyzes moments during the election when this rift was evident, such as when Black Lives Matter activists interrupted the speeches of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Smith hopes the documentary will help people approach this rift in a more proactive manner.

“We hope that when people watch the film, we’re able to make the case persuasively that part of the path forward has to involve figuring out how to move, build, and organize across movements more effectively,” Smith said. “[That has to be] in a way that doesn’t demand fidelity to a particular [political] analysis. Our hope is that people leave the film thinking ‘Alright, how do I listen differently? How do I build across movements differently?’”
Smith said the planning for the film started well before the election and even before Sanders decided to run for president.

“The first thought was ‘Bernie is clearly thinking about running,’” Smith said. “[We didn’t] know what he [was] going to decide, but [we thought] it would be cool to make the behind the scenes campaign documentary about Bernie’s presidential run.”

While the 2016 presidential election serves as a backdrop for the story, the film’s overall theme focuses on the broader story of the movement that Sanders’ campaign inspired.

“Pretty quickly we realized that [Sanders’ campaign] is a cool story, but it’s not the most important story,” Smith said. “Bernie is a part of a much bigger story about movement building. We then shifted gears to ‘This is not the Bernie film, this is about what’s happening in the election on the left.’”

Associate Professor of Communication Studies and filmmaker Thomas C. Johnson said this broader focus benefits the film.

“One thing that was particularly interesting about the film is the way in which the stories are intertwined,” Johnson said. “We’ve got three or four primary characters…and we really get a feel for their lives; the things that they’re going through; and the problems that they’re faced with; whether it’s racial injustice, poverty or taxes. These are things that don’t necessarily exist in silos, but instead are very much intertwined. In order to engage one, you really have to involve all of them.”

Attendee Collin Zollinger (‘20) highlighted his takeaways from the film.
“I thought the movie was a really nice outside perspective on the activist movements surrounding the 2016 election,” Zollinger said. “The in-depth storytelling and emotionally moving interviews are phenomenal.”

While on campus, Smith visited several classes including an environmental policy class and several filmmaking classes. He also met with members of the new group Luther College Young Democratic Socialists.

Smith said the film will be available online in the near future.

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