Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés spoke with Solzy at the Movies over the phone about their voting rights documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy.
Headlined by Stacey Abrams, this is one of the most essential documentaries of the year. Amazon opens the film in theaters on September 9 before releasing September 18 on Amazon Prime.
All In: The Fight for Democracy is one of the best documentaries this year and especially one of the most important as we close in on the election. How important was it to get the film out there before the election?
Liz Garbus: It was important for all of us. When we first talked to Stacey Abrams about making the film we knew we wanted it to come out before the election. I think that part of the silver lining in terms of all of the president’s kind of attacks on the integrity of our voting system—talking about fraud or talking about post office and all these different things—is that there’s a lot more conversation about voting and about the different ways to vote. What we couldn’t have anticipated are the particular challenges of COVID, of course. We certainly knew that having real good information out there about the right to vote and inspiring people to fight for that right and hold on to it would be really important ahead of this election.
In a perfect world, you would have been coming back from the Telluride Film Festival this weekend. How excited you were to get accepted into the festival?
Lisa Cortés: As filmmakers, it’s always exciting to have platforms for our films and Telluride is a great hallmark and great laurel. I think at this juncture, it is about the visibility of the film for the important message and take away that it contains.
Can you talk about working with Stacey Abrams and how her own story guided the film’s storytelling?
Liz Garbus: It’s funny because when we started the project, Stacy was very clear that she didn’t want this to be a film about Stacey Abrams’s race for governor in 2018. Her feeling and I think it’s her wisdom was that once you make this about any one candidate or any one race, you kind of lose the forest for the trees because of course it’s important, who wins the race in Georgia but what’s more important is that we look at the health of our democracy as a whole. She didn’t want the kind of the ins and outs that are controversial and always kind of overshadow that larger story. Lisa and I over time worked with her to demonstrate our point of view that is having her story be the spine of the film was really important and really a way to engage people on a human level and really put a face to this larger historical pattern that we’re talking about. Do you want to add anything to that?
Lisa Cortés: Perfect—absolutely perfect.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while making the film?
Lisa Cortés: I think the most surprising thing and how do you pivot during a pandemic and include all the story challenges that arose. We were in the middle of the rough cut and it definitely was an unexpected component of the storytelling that we then had to figure out how to best incorporate into the structure. What is great is that the story is evergreen. It is the moment but it’s also about history and how this thread hasn’t changed.
How long was the initial cut?
Liz Garbus: We kind of worked on different sequences. It was never some long four-hour cut. It’s not really the workflow that we had. We really worked on the first act of the film, tried to shape that, get it right and sort of build from there. There’s no sensational story of it like, Oh my G-d, there is a five hour cut? What are we gonna do?!? That wasn’t going to work well.
Lisa Cortés: Liz, you mean there isn’t a secret director’s cut that might be seen?
Liz Garbus: (Laughs) We’re only joking. We’re only joking!
Was there anything cut that you were hoping to keep in the film?
Liz Garbus: Certainly stories about particularly some of the great incredible activists like Amelia Boynton and C.T. Vivian that we wanted to spend more time. Also, the senators during Reconstruction—it’s a very interesting history and we are able to touch upon that. Actually, one of the great things about having a film on Amazon Prime is they have a feature called X-ray, which allows us to include additional information about people in our film that we weren’t able to extend their stories as much as we wanted to. We also have included trivia about certain components of the film. That’s what I think is a great balance that we achieved.
I did find it fascinating how, in those early years of Reconstruction, you had voting at 67% for Black Americans in the South and then by World War Two, it’s 6%.
Liz Garbus: Pretty stunning. Basically, it just goes to show you that that how effective the voter suppression tactics work because, of course, we had a constitutional amendment granting male American citizens the right to vote for some time. Because of placards, KKK violence, terrorism, lynching, poll taxes, literacy tests, the 15th amendment was more on paper than in practice. Thankfully, many of those tactics are not in practice today although, of course, we do still treat the specter of racial violence. We see different things like narrow set of ID, which means if you’re a student in Texas, your ID is not sufficient to vote but if you have a gun license, it is. These are different ways in which in that particular case to keep young people from the polls, and of course, they have big effects on Indigenous folks who don’t have street mailing addresses.
How long did you have to keep it a secret that Janelle Monáe had a song in the film?
Lisa Cortés: A couple days ago when she shared the teaser for the film for the song, “Turntables.” It was a hard secret to keep. Right, Liz?
Liz Garbus: Yeah, we were bursting with excitement about the song.
Can you speak about the challenges of doing post-production during a pandemic?
Liz Garbus: Oh yeah, there were some challenges. (Laughs) There were definitely challenges. (Laughs) That would be a whole other interview but I think that we’ve definitely learned some lessons. I mean, things take longer, right—things that if you’re standing next to your editor and your mixer, you can just calibrate right there in the room in that moment. Instead of having that immediacy, you have to upload and then you have to do a try and then you have to get those back. Things can take three or four times as long to get it exactly the way you want it. On top of that, archival houses were slower, understandably. There all kinds of challenges but I have to say that our team worked around the clock to get this film ready to be released on Amazon, September 18. That was the only silver lining in this typical playbook. But yeah, there were certainly challenges but they were met by our amazing team.
What is the most important thing you want audiences to take away from All In: The Fight for Democracy?
Lisa Cortés: Voting is a fundamental right. It’s our civic duty as I think it was Carol who says or is it Stacey who says if it wasn’t that important, why are there so many people trying to stop you from voting? This engagement is important and you should have righteous indignation about your right to assert it.