Following Bakari Sellers’ campaign for Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina, WHILE I BREATHE, I HOPE documents the political fight for Sellers to become the first African American candidate elected statewide in over a century. Harrold spoke with GOOD DOCS about her experience observing Sellers and her thoughts on political filmmaking. Interview conducted by Sage Wallace-Williams.
How did you come across this story?
Growing up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, I knew the history of the Orangeburg Massacre and the role that Cleveland Sellers, Bakari’s father, played in that event. I obliquely knew who Bakari was since he was a State Representative for Orangeburg County. But in the summer of 2014 he really caught my attention when he decided to run for Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina, a position that hadn’t been held by an African American since 1876.
What attracted you to Sellers’ story, in particular, what motivated you to create this film?
Bakari had an energy about him that I didn’t remember seeing from most progressive candidates in South Carolina. I watched a speech he gave at a political stop online where he said, “They say you can’t win cause you’re Black. They say you can’t win cause you’re a Democrat. And then they say you can’t win cause you’re a young, Black, Democrat. Well I say, I can’t win if I don’t run.” It was captivating. I knew I wanted to document his campaign because I knew it would be a great story. I also saw the “passing of the torch” from father to son as an interesting theme that I could explore. Also, being from South Carolina, I felt I could shine a light on a positive story from my home. Growing up, I didn’t see many films set in my state, and if I did they usually weren’t positive. I felt I had a role to play to help change that. As they say, “it went from there.”
Could you give further detail about the filmmaker-subject relationship? How important was it? What were the boundaries established?
The filmmaker-subject relationship is very important. Without a good relationship, you can’t make a film. It is built on trust. Being from Orangeburg and being from South Carolina, I had a leg up. My mom taught Bakari math when he was in high school, so that helped as well. As they say in the South, “he knew my people.” I wasn’t a total stranger. But at the same time, I had to gain Bakari’s trust. He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. The first month of filming was a crash course – we were pretty much filming everything, everyday. You get to know people really quickly. Then, in the following years as we continued to film, as I started showing Bakari scenes and footage, the relationship deepened. I think he realized my intentions were in line with the message he wanted to get out about his own goals and hopes.
When you are following someone’s life, you also have to be respectful of boundaries. Early on, Bakari stipulated that we couldn’t follow any of his work as an attorney. Since that wasn’t the focus of the film, that was fine with me. And then throughout filming, I always did my best to explain what I was looking for with various film shoots beforehand, and he would tell me what was or was not possible. It was always an open conversation on both ends, and I think that’s how it should be.
When we had the final cut of the film, I knew I wanted Bakari to get to see it before we officially picture-locked. Not all filmmakers do this, but I think it is really important. He had an opportunity to ask for certain things to be changed, and I was willing to do that because I didn’t feel like they would compromise the story I was trying to tell.
What were some of the biggest challenges faced while shooting and following a public figure?
During the campaign, the single biggest challenge was very simple: everything was very last minute and fast. The days were extremely long, and we didn’t always know what each day was going to look like. At this point, we didn’t have much money at all, so we had a very small crew. We were all constantly jumping in to help with sound, camera, or driving. As the director, I didn’t have much time to think...or to prepare for that matter. It was very fly by the seat of your pants.
After the campaign, and after we had more time to review the footage and settle into the film, we were able to be more specific about the events and moments we wanted to film. As a public figure, Bakari’s time is filled from morning to night, and on weekends. But he was really great at fitting in shooting. It felt good to know that it was a priority for him and to know that he believed in the film.
Could you provide more details about your creative development and filmmaking style? In particular, what attracts you to political documentaries?
I really enjoy ‘follow documentaries’ where you see someone doing something or follow an unfolding event. I like the fly on the wall, inside track feel of these stories. I also really enjoy present day stories that include history as a part of the story. Political documentaries have a lot of these elements.
As a native South Carolinian, if and what impact did you want this film to have within your community?
I really want as many South Carolinians to get to see this film as possible, especially younger South Carolinians. I think growing up, I always felt like “oh well I guess I have to be from somewhere” about being from South Carolina. I think a lot of people unfortunately feel that way. We make the news for all the wrong reasons. We don’t have a sense of pride about our home, largely because there is a lot of economic and social inequality, and there aren’t a lot of success stories that come from our home state. But as I got older, I started to learn more about the rich history of my home...things that I didn’t learn in school. I realized that South Carolina played a large role in the Civil Rights movement, and that many of those activists were still alive to tell their personal journeys.
I hope people see WHILE I BREATHE, I HOPE and have pride for South Carolina. Bakari’s story is a success story and one that is driven by one thing: hope. He believes that despite the odds, there’s always a chance at a better tomorrow. I love that.
Since you have been credited to a number of politically focused documentaries and nonfiction content, how do you maintain and honor objectiveness despite your independent sentiments towards certain issues?
I wouldn’t consider my films objective. By their very nature, I’m choosing to profile subjects that I’m interested in highlighting. However, within the topic of the films themselves, I believe you do have to be open to seeing all sides of a story. The good, the bad, the ugly. And you have to think about how these play into the larger story you’re trying to tell.
In the case of WHILE I BREATHE, I HOPE, Bakari had been arrested in 2012 for a DUI. In the end he was charged with Reckless Driving. It wasn’t something that happened while we were filming, but during the 2014 campaign it was something that came up. Many people only knew that he was running for Lieutenant Governor and that he’d been arrested for a DUI. For me, it became about how this arrest affected how citizens viewed him. For many South Carolinians, this arrest played into their stereotypical view of a young African American man and gave them something to point to in order to dismiss him. It also played into how the South Carolina Republican Party hoped to cast Bakari to voters. They had a tracker following him hoping to get a picture of him drinking. While it wasn’t a positive item to include in the film, it felt necessary to the larger story we were telling.
Documentaries focused on political campaigns are increasingly becoming more visible. How did you try to add a nuanced approach to this subject matter, especially in terms of storytelling?
For me, the setting of the film was a political campaign. But the film was about the larger issues of racism in politics in the South. And this larger theme was what I focused on throughout production and in post production as we crafted the story. Every scene had to relate back to this larger theme.
I wanted to set the story apart from other political films, and I wanted to keep audiences engaged. As there are more and more political films being made, I think it is important that filmmakers figure out their specific angle.
What are some central messages you hope viewers walk away with?
I want audiences to be aware of the systemic injustices that are built into our political systems. By seeing these injustices play out through one person’s journey, they get personalized. I hope the film touches people’s hearts and encourages them to get active to make change.
I also don’t want audiences to lose faith. It was always a goal that the film ended with hope. Because as long as we all remain hopeful, we will keep working towards a more equitable society.
What advice do you have for filmmakers? Especially those hailing from the Southeastern United States.
Keep going. Each day, put one foot in front of the other. It can get overwhelming when you think about making a film. But I try to set little goals for myself each day. And if I don’t meet them, I don’t beat myself up. I reassess and keep going. The financials of independent documentary making are also really tough. When you look at your bank account, it can make you want to stop. But try to not let that hold you back. What other work can you do to support your film? What creative ways can you find to make money? There aren’t as many documentary filmmakers from the Southeastern United States, so we have a special responsibility to bring stories from our area to a larger audience. I see this as a gift. It is also a motivator. What story do you know about that is being overlooked that you can highlight?
Sage Wallace-Williams is from Fayetteville, North Carolina, and is a recent graduate from the University of Missouri where she received her M.A. in Documentary Journalism; previously, she earned her B.S. in Multimedia Journalism from North Carolina A&T State University. Her career goals are to become an executive within the documentary space.