Learning from Film Festivals for “The Organizer”

Ideas and Issues
with Beulah Labostrie at the New Orleans showing

New York City   Reasonable people might ask, “What does a community and labor organizer know about documentary films?” The answer would be darned little! I say this after having watched several develop over the last seven years or so as various filmmakers with different ideas and themes tried to get their arms around ACORN and organizing. Some abandoned the project, others combined, and now several have come to some fruition.

With Dan Russell and Mike Gallagher next to film poster at Woodstock

Over recent days with family, friends, members, other organizers and activists, and, importantly, members of the public, I have attended two film festivals in New Orleans and Woodstock, New York where “The Organizer,” a documentary by Nick Taylor from Toronto and Joey Carey from New York was showing. The film is a long look at ACORN and its arc from 1970 through today. I’m a bit too close to it to offer a comprehensive review or critique at this point, but as an organizer, I can offer some reactions from what others have said, and the questions and comments many have made after viewing the film.

People have almost universally been wildly enthusiastic and excited after the showings. They find it inspiring and motivating. That’s fascinating to me. Part of it lies in the fact that the film despite some “dark” passages uses archival and contemporary footage of actions which give force to the passion, resilience, and conviction of the members and leadership. Most of it lies, perhaps not surprisingly, in the classic “eye of the beholder.”

People are grabbing for the light. Most of the questions and responses were really not about the film at all, but tended to be more searching. What could be done now? How do we best organize and respond to the contemporary political crisis? Where can I go, and what can I do to help? This basket of questions were very moving and personal, and often accompanied by some sharing of their own personal situation and their need to act even with limited time and energy. Another bunch of questions I would characterize as looking for a way to understand the larger picture. Is there anything that can effectively counter rapacious capitalism today? What do we make of the impact of Bernie Sanders now? How can we merge the issues domestically and internationally, as ACORN is trying to do now, and is it possible?

All of the comments and questions intersected at the junction of organization and social movement. In the age of Trump, as we near a year since the last election, the frustration seemed palpable, as did people’s need to do something. People were clearly stirring the fire to find the embers of the resistance that moved them after the election. The fire in their guts is still burning, even where the flames are less visible.

I answered all of the questions asked, but my organizing critique, which I do know something about, is that I did not come prepared to offer them the answers they were hungry to hear, which is what they could do now and how to do it. I won’t make that mistake again. I may not be able to objectively evaluate the film, but I definitely know an organizing tool when I see and hear it.