News & Politics

Wisconsin Rising: Grassroots Documentary Film Follows the People's Movement in Madison from Revolt to Recalls

Sam Mayfield is finishing a documentary on the fight for union rights in Wisconsin this past year, and she tells AlterNet her story.

Just under a year ago, Republican governor Scott Walker was sworn in in Wisconsin. One of his first moves was to push for a bill that would strip state and local employees of their right to bargain collectively, which would have effectively ended their union protections.

But Wisconsinites fought back, and a working people's movement sprang up in Madison that quickly spread across the state and the country. Sam Mayfield, a video journalist from Vermont, was dispatched to cover the growing protests in Madison for The Uptake, and decided to stay and turn her work into a full-length feature documentary, Wisconsin Rising.

“The thing that moves me about this story is that when teachers and nurses and firefighters, the people who sustain our communities, tell us that they are not being treated fairly and they are thinking about not going to work tomorrow, we have no other choice but to listen to them,” Mayfield said. She's using the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to finish post-production on the film, and she took a few minutes to talk to AlterNet about the project, and why she's committed to grassroots funding and distribution.

Sarah Jaffe: How did you get involved in Wisconsin?

Sam Mayfield: I had been covering the solidarity protest in Vermont when the uprising started in Wisconsin. I had been posting my videos and sharing them with The Uptake, and they called me and said, “Hey, can you go to Wisconsin and report for us?”

I said yeah, as an independent freelancer I can leave in two days. So I did. I had a relationship with the Uptake already, I had worked with them in 2008. I went to Wisconsin for what we thought was going to be four days, but everything continued to unfold, to become wilder and wilder.

I stayed at first in a hotel, and the first thing I did when I knew I was going to stay there was I rented an office. I slept in the office for a while, then I rented one apartment, then another.

SJ: What made you decide to stay?

SM: When I got there and I saw the thousands of people in the streets rising up in the face of injustice, that's what made me stay. Watching the tenacity and the fearlessness and the courage of the people there, and, really, seeing the lack of coverage that was out there.

We independent alternative media sources, we were the ones that were inside the capitol. At the rallies, the major media outlets would swoop in, throw their weight around, smack us with their cameras, and then move on. So the lack of coverage, the lack of credible information, that's what made me stay.

SJ: How did it feel, having been there for the protests, seeing the bill signed into law?

SM: It was sad, and it was also very inspiring to see the people not giving up. When Scott Walker signed the bill that day there were thousands and thousands of people outside the capitol and inside the capitol. I was in the room with him—I was press—and you could hear people chanting outside of his window. It was impossible for the others in the room not to hear, he was having to speak up.

When I walked out of that room and saw the thousands of people standing outside of his chamber, it was one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. People were crying. It was impossible for me not to become emotional, knowing that they had just lost their rights that they had been fighting for.

SJ: And then you also saw the beginning of the recall campaigns against the state senators who had supported the bill.

SM: That was also moving. The energy was very different. The recalls were in response to the Republicans who tried to pass the bill in a way that many people in the state said was not in accordance with open meetings law. Since some of these Republican lawmakers were trying to push this through so fast, many people said “You should not be representing us.”

Two were ultimately recalled. Watching the energy around these was amazing. I'm from Vermont and I think of that as a politically active state—but Wisconsin, these people know every detail of what's going on. Their feeling is that they're under assault, they need to know everything. The lawmakers are trying to do this under the cloak of darkness.

These people, with the recall campaign, were acting in a way that was within the democratic  process but still radical, and also taking direct action in any way they could. Some was within the system and some was really animated outside of the system.

SJ: Tell us about your arrest.

SM: I was arrested two days after I officially moved to Wisconsin. There was a parade that I was filming, and many of the people moved from the outside to the inside of the capitol. When I walked inside the capitol, I was arrested by an officer who had told me to leave the capitol building despite the fact that it was an open building, open to everyone.

My assistant was arrested, I went to her aid. When I got there I said, “No, I'm press, she's also with me, please let her go.”

He said, “Well, you can go too.”

He arrested me, they detained me for a few hours and ultimately let me go. A criminal defense lawyer represented me pro bono and the charges were dropped. That officer has since retired and was taken off of duty the following week.

SJ: One of the things that stuck out for many of us watching the protests was actually how positive the reaction of the police seemed to be.

SM: One of the things that drew me in was when I learned that the firefighters and the cops, who had been called in to kick people out, said, “Not only are we not going to kick them out but we're going to stand with them. We're going to spend the night too.”

That created an incredible line of solidarity between what could have been adversaries. Here are people being brought together in the most beautiful way. The police, with the exception of the one who arrested me, were the friendliest people with guns I have been around.

They were not exercising arbitrary authority early on. By June, when I got arrested, they were. They were tired. I think my arrest was a good example of people being exhausted, overextended, and not knowing what else to do. I had experienced that cop who arrested me before, and I think he was just another state worker who was over it.

SJ: Who are some of your favorite interviews for the film?

SM: Dennis Kucinich said one of my favorite things, which was, “It's the system that needs to be recalled, it's the system that needs to be overturned.”

The film is also going to do a bit of a systems analysis, how is it possible for leaders like Walker to be put in power. In relation to that analysis, Kucinich's comment really fits. We need Constitutional amendments, we need to reform the Constitution.

A state worker, a janitor, Elden Jelle, told me that he used to make $15 an hour. He's in his early 60s, now he's going to make $12 an hour and have a second job. His interview was really moving. I felt like I was talking to my dad, listening to this super-sweet man tell me about making $15 an hour, which seems not right in he first place, and now he's going to be making $12 an hour.

Yedda Ligocki is a schoolteacher who is going to have to leave the school she's teaching in because she can't afford the cut in pay, she can't afford the fuel to drive there. She said “Just because you went to school doesn't mean you're an educator.” She went on to say, “Just because I drink milk doesn't mean I know how a farmer should run his farm, just because you went to school doesn't mean you can run a school system.”

Karen Turerk, a geographer, says there is an assault that is happening in Wisconsin and it's a threat to democracy across the country.

SJ: Talk about using Kickstarter to fund your film.

SM: Films like this aren't going to be picked up by major distribution outlets. As a result of that we're looking at grassroots efforts to raise money for the project. That's in direct response to the knowledge that major backers, major media outlets aren't going to support this. I have been told outright by foundations that the film is too political, that it looks great but they don't want to have their name attached to it.  Funding for a film like this isn't going to be easy.

The total budget for the film is $200,000, which is very small for a feature film. We're hoping to raise $40,000 on Kickstarter. We have until January 21 on our campaign, and we've raised about $16,000 so far. It's a process of emailing everyone who you think might back the project, it's  a lot of brainstorming. I have a nice team of people who are helping to propel buzz around it. You have to keep it live and active and make it seem exciting, like a party.

Before I got to post-production we were successful in raising $30,000 to get me through production. That lasted from April to November, which was two months longer than we projected. That money came from two major donors from Vermont that backed me with $20,000 total, and the other $10,000 came from smaller donations.

SJ: Is this the first time you've made a feature film?

SM: It is. I made a 26-minute documentary short in 2010 called Silenced Voices, but this is my first feature.

Silenced Voices tells the story of a young migrant farmworker killed working in a Vermont dairy farm. We brought this young man's body back to Mexico and interviewed people in his family and community about the causes, effects, and experiences of migration, then came back to Vermont and interviewed people here.    

SJ: What are the plans for release of Wisconsin Rising?

SM: I just spoke with a person who runs a film festival this morning and she reminded me that movies like this, that are made with a grassroots effort, we don't have to go through major outlets anymore. Using a grassroots model we can take it through film festivals, we can ask for stages in theaters and communities.

My intention is to run it through the film festival circuit, then hopefully it will be picked up by a distributor and end up in the homes of people who care about democracy eroding in this country.

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.