What does “representation” mean in the midst of a historically tense election year? In her film Represent, filmmaker Hillary Bachelder sought to show the universal struggle to redefine repressive expectations for women in politics with a look at three women running for office in a male-dominated world.
Originally from Maine, Bachelder went to Chicago for schooling at Northwestern, worked for renowned documentary producer Kartemquin films as Director of Production (where she worked on the Emmy-award-winning Trials of Muhammad Ali and Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap), and has embedded herself in the Midwest ever since. Bachelder also wrote in detail about the struggles of being a filmmaker after the COVID pandemic hit hard. But despite her own loss of opportunities for the foreseeable future, she remains “cautiously hopeful for the future of Represent. The film follows three everyday women who ran for local office in their communities, on both sides of the aisle. In a national election year, their stories feel very much of the cultural and political zeitgeist.”
“Heading into the homestretch of this year’s election, Represent feels like a balm,” wrote Monica Castillo for RogerEbert. “A reminder that, win or lose, there’s something to be gained by reigniting people’s interest in civil engagement, especially at the local and state level. You don’t have to agree with everyone’s politics in the documentary, but it’s nonetheless fascinating to hear each story and feel reinvigorated and moved by their determination.”
Bachelder talked to us about the meaning of representation, how the women running for office featured in the film came to trust her, and what they’re doing in the election year 2020.
What led you to want to make this film? And what does the word “represent” as the title mean to you in the context of these stories?
In April of 2017, I sat in a sunlit room in Wisconsin, exchanging pleasantries with twenty or so local farmers. They were all women, and today they’d all raised their hands to say they were interested in running for office.
In the five months since Hillary Clinton had lost the presidential election, I’d been showing up to a lot of rooms like these and meeting women just like this. Unpolished but determined. Passionate about fire stations and ditches and the schools in their community and tired of waiting for someone else to fix things.
I knew this was a story I wanted to tell. I was looking for a window into the current political landscape and was interested in exploring the experiences of women in office beyond a tired “year of the woman” or “pink wave” trope. Local politics felt like the perfect place to dig in—an opportunity to both celebrate the important work being done at this level while interrogating the systemic failings and intrinsic biases apparent even in these “smallest” of elections. So I borrowed a friend’s camera, packed up my car, and spent the next few years chasing Myya, Bryn, and Julie through parades and fundraisers and chili cook-offs across the Midwest.
With a film titled Represent, it felt like my responsibility to ask big questions about the true power of representation. Yes, the demographics of elected officials are important, and gender identity, race, and sexual orientation on their own can be powerful symbols. But even more significant is a candidate stepping into a space that wasn’t built for them and still unapologetically bringing their whole selves into the spotlight with them. It was this revelation that grew into the backbone of the film.
While Myya and Julie and Bryn check all sorts of disparate demographic boxes, they share a universal struggle to redefine repressive expectations for women in politics, and to exist in the public eye on their own terms.
I knew it was important, then, for me to present each woman as more than a campaign commercial. I needed to let them be full people with flaws, complicated relationships, and moments of vulnerability and opportunities for improvement. Represent deepens these portraits by developing stakes that extend beyond the campaign trail, and the arc of the film ultimately continues past election night to paint a richly personal picture of joy, of loss, of mother-daughter relationships, owning your narrative, and of growth.
I wanted to ask more from our audience as well. Represent pushes all of us to sit with people we may disagree with while still recognizing their worth, and to consider the subconscious creep of our own biases and preconceptions. Time and time again during production I found myself outside the lines of my original thesis, caught off guard by three complicated women and communities that defied conventional punditry. But it was these moments of discomfort, the grey areas and digressions, that I kept coming back to weeks later in the edit.
So that’s what I hope to offer now with Represent: a tender and often unexpected telling of three passionate candidates, the challenges they face, and a glimpse at what we all have to gain when women shape the future of our communities and ultimately, our country.
What was the hardest thing you had to overcome in order to finish Represent?
Every independent filmmaker struggles for funding. Without consistent institutional support, we run on a sweat equity economy and are too often forced to make artistic compromises. No money in the budget for a trip to Ohio? No scene.
In our case, that distance between myself as the director/shooter in Chicago, Myya in Michigan, and Bryn in Ohio presented a particular challenge. We couldn’t afford regular flights, so I drove. Over three years, I clocked about 33,000 miles crisscrossing the Midwest. I listened to a lot of podcasts. I slept at a lot of Red Roof Inns. I still dream about highway exits.
Obviously establishing trust with these women and their families was extremely important to gain such intimate access. How did you get them to trust you and open up for the film for so long?
I did my best to be honest from the outset with Myya, Bryn, and Julie about the type of film I wanted to make, the access to their lives that would require, and what I hoped to accomplish with the film’s eventual release. I tried to make it clear that I would respect any boundary they needed to set.
But in the end, there’s no substitute for time spent with people. I built trust with each of them just by continuing to show up, month after month, and year after year. When there were rough patches, I put down the camera and we talked them out.
Over the course of three years of shooting Represent, I:
– drove 30,000 miles (circumference of the earth is 24k miles)
– shot 300 hours of footage
– ate approx ten metric tons of pb&j
— The Film Represent (@represent_film) October 27, 2020
They’ve each been incredibly patient with me and with a filmmaking process that’s constantly demanding, frustratingly opaque, and tediously slow. For that I’ll always be grateful. And although I may have gained their trust some years ago, it’s the ongoing job of any filmmaker, even after a film is “finished,” not to lose it.
What else did you film for Represent that you wish you were able to include?
So much! We did such a deeper dive into many of the local issues that I would have loved to explore on screen. I could’ve made a whole film (well, maybe short film) about the controversy surrounding the building of Granville’s new fire station.
I also followed up pretty extensively with some of the women who were members of the campaign teams we were focusing on. I wanted to represent the “ripple effect” past Myya, Bryn, and Julie and into their broader communities. Sadly, most of these interviews and scenes were cut for the sake of time.
Do you have your own personal favorite scene in Represent?
Every election night was an emotional one. I wanted so badly for them all to win, for their hard work to pay off and for their communities to recognize their leadership potential. It was so hard not to put the camera down and just agonize over the returns alongside them.
Watching through the film now, I will also always cheer/sing along in my head to Myya’s music video. I mean, come on.
What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?
So hard to choose. Some recent ones would be: Midnight Traveler, On Her Shoulders, and American Factory.
What film/project(s) are you working on next?
I’m currently focusing on shorter format projects. I’m developing a hybrid animation/ archival film now that centers around the grief we feel for strangers.
How about updates on how the three women featured in the film are doing this year?
This is as of July 2020.
- Currently getting her MBA at Wayne State University;
- Still working in marketing for Google, very proud of having paid off all her campaign debts;
- Founded a group “Young People for Black Lives” in the wake of George Floyd’s murder;
- Still putting out political jams; her latest single is called “Dump Trump.”
- Running for Trustee re-election in 2021;
- Working part-time as Outreach Director for Rural Organizing, a national group of rural progressives
- Still involved with local Republican party chapter;
- Resumed her healthcare operations consulting practice;
- Working with community organizers & nonprofits in the Chicago suburbs to create job training programs for local youth.
Bobby Burns (Julie’s campaign manager) continues to run campaigns around the Chicago area, most recently a progressive candidate for Illinois Supreme Court. Michelle Newman (Bryn’s campaign team) had never been involved in a campaign before Bryn. Went on the following year to become campaign manager for a progressive County Commissioner candidate. And in November 2020 she’s on the ballot herself for the State Board of Education. Ceciel Shaw (Founder of “Strong Voices Rising” and Bryn’s campaign volunteer) successfully ran for the Granville School Board in 2019. Taylor Harrell (Myya’s campaign team) ran for Detroit Charter Commission in 2018, and is currently running for State Representative in Michigan’s House District 2.
Interview for NBC5 Chicago: