Hannah Rosenzweig & Wendy Sachs

Hannah Rosenzweig is a documentary film director and long-time producer. She is the Founder and President of Intention Media Inc. Since serving as Hillary Clinton’s personal videographer for her 2008 Presidential campaign, Hannah has worked as a producer and advisor for women candidates and elected officials. She produced the award-winning film, “Puppet,” which premiered at the DOC NYC Film Festival and was distributed on Netflix, iTunes, and Sundance Selects. She has produced and filmed documentaries for the History Channel, the Sundance Channel, and PBS including the Peabody Award-winning “Voices of Civil Rights.” Rosenzweig was awarded a prestigious JustFilms Fellowship from the Ford Foundation for leaders working at the intersection of film, storytelling, and social justice. Her background is in Health Communications and she holds a Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University. She is a singer with the Resistance Revival Chorus, an all-women’s chorus based in New York City.

Wendy Sachs is a documentary film director, Emmy-award winning network news television producer (NBC, CNN and FOX), writer, author and sought-after speaker on women’s issues. She is also a former Capitol Hill Press Secretary, media relations executive, and the author of two critically acclaimed books about women and careers: “Fearless and Free – How Smart Women Pivot and Relaunch their Careers” and “How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-at Work Moms.” Wendy has appeared on dozens of radio segments, TV shows and podcasts including: NBC’s TODAY show, ABC’s Good Morning America, CNN’s Headline News and others. She is a senior columnist for Forbes Women and has written for Fast Company, Time, Business Insider, The New York Times, CNN and others. Sachs has been recognized by MAKERS and was also named in 2017 on Forbes.com as a “40 Over 40 Woman to Watch.”

Tara Karajica talks to Hannah Rosenzweig and Wendy Sachs about their film, “Surge,” a documentary about the record number of first-time female candidates who ran, won and upended politics in the historic, barrier-breaking 2018 midterm elections. It follows three candidates in Texas, Indiana and Illinois who are each running in uphill battles to flip their deep red districts to blue, including Lauren Underwood, the youngest Black woman to ever be elected to Congress.

 

 

 

 

How did Surge come about?

Hannah Rosenzweig: Surge came about right after the Women’s March in 2017. I was involved with the Global Women’s March as an organizer, making videos for the March and Wendy was writing articles and involved in other ways. We were both aware of the millions of women that were absolutely devastated by the victory of Donald Trump and the defeat of Hillary Clinton and it just sort of exploded into all this activism and the Women’s March. But then, after the Women’s March, we were seeing that there were all these women that were running for Office and Wendy and I got together originally with Tanya Selvaratnam and we said: “Wow! This is an amazing story! We have to make this film” Our interest was really in first-time candidates, so women that were so devastated by the results of the election that they had to completely change their lives and run for Office. They were doing something different beforehand, but said: “Forget about that, I’ve got to jump in! This is how I have to do it.”

How did you hear about Jana Lynne Sanchez, Lauren Underwood and Liz Watson? Why was it important to tell their stories and how did you choose the three of them in particular?

Wendy Sachs: We were looking for a really diverse group of women. We knew we wanted to follow women who were running for the very first time. That was very important. We also wanted to follow women who were looking to flip their deep red districts to blue and we wanted to follow women who weren’t on the East Coast or the West Coast of the country; we wanted to follow women who were really in the heartland, so Texas, Indiana and Illinois are really representative of middle America, the heartland of America. Texas is sort of its own entity. And, we started casting for characters the way you would do for a documentary film. We went to a campaign training center, which does a week-long boot camp and it’s bi-partisan, so we weren’t even focused right away just on the Democratic women. We thought: “Lots of women are running for Office and this could probably be a bi-partisan film,” because women were so devastated by what had happened when Hillary lost that women had decided they were throwing their hats into the rink and they were running for Office. But, ultimately, we wanted to tell the story of three diverse women who represented different experiences, different parts of the country, different ages and they were racially, ethnically, geographically diverse and we settled on a young Black nurse in Illinois, a fifty-something Latina in Texas and a forty-something, mother of young children in Indiana. So, they were really representing this surge of women running for the very first time.

H.R.: They loosely represented different parts of the Democratic Party. That was also interesting to us. There are other films that had come before ours and so, we had our interests in how we wanted our film to be, but we also wanted to make sure that it was different enough than the other films that were already out there. So, rather than just focusing on candidates that pushed the Democratic Party to the left, we were looking at the Democratic Party that is actually very diverse. We’ve got the center folks, we’ve got the progressive people, we’ve got the in the middle of progressive and center, so we wanted to represent that as much as we could, too.

Can you talk about the title, “Surge”?

W.S.: We kept hearing about the “surge of women, the surge of women…” You see it in the film; we pulled clips to actually represent why we named the film what we did. It’s this wave, it’s a massive blue wave of Democratic women who ran in 2018. It was like a tsunami, really. It was this surge of women. And, that’s where the name came from.

Can you talk about the making of the film? What were the biggest challenges and small victories? I understand you had a crowd-founding campaign through IFundWomen?

H.R.: Yes, the biggest challenges were fundraising and finding the money to make the film because that led into everything else. We needed to have the money in order to get out to follow our candidates. In a way, we made it more difficult than it could’ve been. We wanted to follow these women from different States and really have a lot of diversity, but it made it more challenging because that’s three different locations that we had to be constantly shooting at and covering. When you’re making a documentary film and don’t have a big budget, it’s very challenging to do that. And then, funding for documentary films is very difficult as it is. There were other political films about women by women – there’s several of them – and that made also funding difficult because people would say: “Oh! Well, I already gave to one” and we’d say: “Hey! But if you like this topic, you should give to more than one! Why only give to one?” Only a few people agreed with us on that. That was the biggest challenge in my mind and keeping it all going, too. It’s a massive project for a scrappy film team like us.

You’re not scrappy!

W.S.: But we are! That’s why we got it done! I actually think because we were able to be so lean, so agile and so passionate about this and determined to tell this story. We were also competing, as Hannah mentioned, with these other films out there. So, we were competing for funding, we were also competing for attention, for film festivals, to get a sales agent. We were told time and again: “Oh! We can’t work with you because we’re representing another film that’s similar enough.” The competitive landscape of creating the film at the time that we made it just made things very challenging on every level. And, then the pandemic, of course! It blew up the entire industry, cratered the economy and people had no more money to write checks – it’s the domino effect of the timing. And yet, here we are, having our film debut at actually the perfect time! The timing couldn’t be better!

We did have those moments that were really game-changing for us and it was when our first executive producer came on board and she contributed enough money to really keep the film going and that happened a few different times. Regina K. Scully came on board. We got Katie Couric and we let people know that Katie was supporting the film and had financially supported the film and became an advisor to the film – that was really helpful for us. And, we brought on board Alyssa Milano, who’s an activist, an actress and a producer and is authentically genuine to activism and to causes and that was very helpful to us. So, we just kept building our Advisory Board and the people who were supporting the film and that helped give us our own credibility because this is the first film that I’m co-directing and producing and Hannah has worked on many other films before, but we didn’t have “Academy Award Winner” attached to our name and other films had very, very experienced, seasoned and recognized directors attached and it was easier for them to get the resources and the funding. So, we were fighting the fight – the underdog film – and we owned that also; we sort of leaned into that because that’s what it was. And, people respect that.

The film’s focus is on grassroots and how these three women get activated, use their voices and see themselves as elected leaders. Can you talk about this way of activism, campaigning, its effectiveness, necessity and importance?

H.R.: One of our partners on the film and one of the experts in the film, Ashanti Gholar, says: “Activists make the best candidates” and she talks a lot about that and I think that’s really interesting because all three of our women came from their awakening as activists… Liz had been a long-time activist and Lauren had worked as a nurse and in Public Health Policy, but I wouldn’t have called her an activist before. There was something about that moment after the 2016 win and loss and the Women’s March, where all three of them became activated and were like: “We’ve got to jump in, we’ve got to work in our communities” and it’s interesting because both Lauren and Liz were not living in their district during 2016, but they felt like: “I have to go home and I have to get involved in the district that I know the best” and so, that’s part of the grassroots part.

W.S.: I think for us, activism is really the theme of the film; it’s this power that women can engage, that women can get activated, that women can make a real difference in their community and it’s a really empowering theme that you can make change happen and that’s really sort of the essence I think of the film in what’s so inspiring for people to watch. And, that’s not just about the women who ran for Office – we always say it’s about the women who get behind the women who run for Office and that’s the key.

H.R.: I think that the powerful thing about our film is that it shows people can be in politics for the right reasons and they can get in because they care about issues and want to make their communities better. I think people forget because our politics right now are so crazy and we’re so inundated with a lot of divisive, very disturbing stuff about our politics all the time, especially centered around D.C. What we’re offering is almost the opposite of that and I think that viewers have found that to be a really hopeful message like: “Wow! Politics can be like this!” Campaigns can be done for the right reasons and they can be accessible like this. People can see themselves in it, they can say: “Oh! I see that that person ran, I could do that, too!”

W.S.: And, even for those who don’t win, the other takeaway of this film is that you’re still making a difference. You can move the needle so far in your district. Maybe you don’t flip it at that time, but you can really move the needle and that’s important. So, the activism and the work real people are doing, not people who are necessarily wealthy or come from a family legacy and name recognition, but regular people. That is a really hopeful message.

What do you think the impact of Surge will be in terms of getting people to vote in November, normalizing the place of women in politics, accepting inclusion and diversity in politics and starting to trust women in politics?

H.R.: A friend of mine told me that she’s never voted before. She’s a woman in her thirties and she had just decided that her vote didn’t count or wasn’t important and she didn’t want to support these candidates. She has never voted in any election before. She said she watched Surge and she sent her registration to vote and this is going to be the first election where she votes. It inspired her so much because she said: “If these women are out there, busting their butts for change, what am I doing? How could I not vote? How could I not get in there and support the candidates that I believe in?” So, she got her registration and she’s all set to vote in Virginia, which is a good place to vote. I think the film is very helpful, very inspiring. People watch it and afterwards, they want to get involved. They want to do something now and that is why it’s so important that we release the film during these last few months of the election and are showing it to as many people as possible.

W.S.: I think that we’re really seeing that now. Again, going back to us wanting to showcase really relatable women, not the perfectly polished traditional candidate, which in our world is middle-aged, white and male. So, we’re showing something very different. We were very intentional about this. When we were looking for women to follow, we cast a pretty wide net. There is something about a more relatable candidate that does then change this image of who a female politician can look like and that person can be someone who has ink on their arms, or is breastfeeding on the campaign trail; they can be Black, they can be Brown, they can be Asian, Latina… The idea – be natural and be real and I think that is really how we’re transforming this paradigm of what a female politician looks like and it takes some time. Also, our voices sound different. The higher pitch tone is something that women have been criticized for for many, many years. Hillary was criticized that she wasn’t smiling enough, she wasn’t authentic enough, she wasn’t warm enough, her pantsuits, her pearls, her hair, her voice tone, she was too shrill, she was shouting… All of those things are traditionally what would have held women back and then we spend so much time focusing on these female attributes, but we criticize women who actually have a higher pitched tone to their voice. All of these things, I think, are really shifting right now and we need to keep seeing, seeing and seeing this representation and that normalizes it. Then, we’re no longer expecting a woman to show up with short hair, pearls, a pantsuit and little kitten heels…They can be wearing their cowboy boots and they don’t have to be so polished. Their voice can be a little bit shriller and that should be OK.

H.R.: There’s a part in the film where Lauren says: “If some days my hair isn’t fabulous – reality…” Her dress is machine-washable and she talks about if she’s focused on being perfect everyday, she’d loose the campaign. That requires too much energy and it’s not where she wanted to spend her energy or could spend her energy. I love that line. Every time I hear it, it gets me because it’s so true and so real.

Hannah, did you use your skills as producer and advisor for women candidates and elected officials for this film?

H.R.: I’ve been reflecting on that a lot because I have worked now with so many different candidates through the years since Hillary. I think that one thing that I shared a few days ago was that I filmed two hundred hours of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. That’s really a lot of hours, but so much of it wasn’t able to be used because it wasn’t a documentary, it wasn’t something that was going to be for public use. I think it’s all in the Clinton Library right now – I don’t even know where it is. What it was like behind-the-scenes and how hard she worked and all the struggles and what her days looked like, which were so insane, how everything was set up with her staff, how she did what she did wasn’t able to be made public. And so, one of the things that was really important to me with this film was to show what it’s actually like to run. I think people need to see that in this country. People need to normalize the process of campaigning and see that real people can do it. Yes, it’s hard and it’s challenging, but you can still do it. And so, I think that that informed my thinking. Also, just working with candidates. There’s a lot going on with candidates and first-time candidates are trying to form their message and they might have some trouble being authentic, but seeing how your candidate is expressing things and learning how to work with them so you can get the material that you need is something that I’ve done for over ten years, working with different kinds of women.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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