Since the election, there has been much talk in the documentary world of exploring the stories of those who voted for Trump or come from the parts of our society that gave birth to the dangerous attitudes and forces Trump gathers around himself. As someone who made a personal film about a working poor, so-called “white trash” family, I was ready to add my voice to this project without hesitation. Or so I thought.
Recently I showed a clip from October Country at a RIDM panel that addressed the trust between filmmaker and subject and how that shapes what gets shown and what does not in a film. The subjects of October Country are my own family and to this day I’m impressed with how open they were while I was shooting and how they still support the film today, despite the fact that it puts very intimate, very troubling details of their lives in public. October Country shows domestic abuse, poverty, child molestation, the failures of foster care and the strength of family love in the face of all these issues. It also places these problems against the nostalgic, haunted, and often violent imagery of American Halloween celebrations. In discussions, audiences are frequently surprised to learn that the family was not only on board with the film’s content but also with its approach. The RIDM audience was no exception until someone asked whether or not my family had voted for Trump. Taken aback, I responded that the purpose of the film was to challenge stereotypes, not aid in easy categorizing. I spoke harshly and with a sudden rush of protective feelings. Despite having talked freely about all of my family’s secrets, this question felt like a transgression. Not only did I not want my family associated the popular image of Trump supporters, the fact is I also dodged the question because I didn’t know the answer. I have been afraid to ask them.
I do know that my family is from that spectrum of poor whites that breed Trump supporters, particularly those who do not see themselves as racist, sexist or homophobic and yet managed to overlook these elements in Trump’s campaign. I don’t mean the rabid dog fascists and instigating bullies, I mean a group of people whose actions and opinions seem contradictory and self-defeating because their ideas about their own lives are also contradictory and self-defeating.
When we began making October Country, I really wanted to express how it felt to grow up in a class that had a kind of ghostly existence in the overall American system – barely heard, barely visible, etc. – and how social ghostliness becomes internalized to the point where life is haunted by cycles of repeated trauma that there is neither voice nor power to halt. It’s hard to convey the bleak position of being white and very poor. It means having a privilege that is intangible as a spirit – you cannot feel or put to work in your life. It means carrying a self-perpetuating shame that feeds on lack of education and lack of opportunity. And, saddest of all, because political powers will exploit your minority status without ever acknowledging it or allowing you to acknowledge it, other minorities become enemies rather than allies. You become a ghost surrounded by demons.
Ironically, if I hadn’t been gay I might not have been able to see the October Country I grew up in for what it is. My body ushered me into a visible, socially acknowledged minority that taught me how oppression works in this country, how to fight, and the need for making allies. It was much easier for me to identity as gay, even in the ’80s at the height of the AIDS crisis, than to identify as white trash. October Country, which began as a photo project, was an attempt to interpret and make visible the place and people I came from. I’m still proud of that work, and the project continues. But photos were not enough. They could present the visual essence of the place, but not the character of the people. I tried writing, but that was not enough either. It wasn’t until Mike Palmieri and I decided to make a film, till my family were pouring their vibrancy, humor, and despair into the camera, that I felt that the project was finally doing its work.
My family trusted me with their stories and yet I don’t trust that they didn’t vote for Trump. That same vibrancy and humor I mentioned should have made me confident that, unlike many poor working-class whites, they did not vote against their own interests; also, given that I am a gay man who relies on public assistance for life-giving HIV medicine, I’d rather not know if they voted for an administration that may endanger my ability to live. But there is also the quality of despair – the despair I saw all around me growing up, undermining everything. It’s this that makes me doubt.
So I have not asked my family, and for the time being will not ask, if they voted for Trump. In this I am indeed the child of my class. By this I mean I choose to live with a ghost of knowledge, to live with its oblique presence rather than confront it and the possible pain it might bring. For the moment at least, I’m comfortable with this decision. In the end, their vote matters less than the fact that they are from a portion of the population who can no longer be treated as ghosts and whose lives, more than ever, need to be seen and understood.