Living the American movie

Jim Gabour
3 November 2008


The time-change from daylight to standard time just happened this past weekend, and my body has not yet adjusted to the difference. I am instantly wide awake, the sun just peeking in my second-storey bedroom windows. I gather consciousness, walk down to the front porch to gather the newspaper, and suddenly realise where I am.

It is crisp and invigorating outside, heat having relented the first week of November in New Orleans. Pleasant. I pause, gather my dream-addled wits, and unconsciously assume my occupation to record the scene:

Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here

Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly

For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here

This article draws on a lecture given each semester to the first class of Jim Gabour's course, "Introduction to Digital Filmmaking"


A middle-aged MALE stands on his front porch, dressed in rumpled sweatshirt and pants, sockless and in sandals, hair and beard untamed and sleep-parted in every direction.

In spite of the commonplace scene, a wave of classical string music begins to rise expectantly under the street sounds. As the music gains in volume, the camera simultaneously cranes toward the sky to take in the whole neighborhood.

The man LOOKS UP.

I look up. There is no camera.

But I see myself standing at the cusp of something wonderful.

Election-day in the United States of America, 2008.


I start the coffee, pour a cup, think again. I decide to desert it. I am already too anxious. I get in the car and drive to the polls, twelve blocks away. There are plenty of spaces in the school yard where voters are allowed to park on such days, so I think I have made the wise decision to come early, rather than after work. The wait will not be as long.


I was wrong. There is a line around the block, even as the polls open. People from the neighbourhood who have no cars, people who live nearby and are as excited as I am and could not deal with driving, people on bicycles, they are all already there waiting. Some have brought books, some newspapers, some chairs. They are all smiling. It is their turn to act. They finally have control.

It is an amazing thing to witness.


The initial confusion - there are six different voting wards, each with two electronic machines in the cafeteria basement of this building - is sorted out quickly into six lines, and the voting begins.

Something special is happening here. Even though witnessed as a child, I remembered the segregation marches, and later the Vietnam riots, the Iraq protests, the environmental sit-ins. But while each of those events and eras were inspiring and served their larger purpose, nothing has ever felt as powerful as this queue of quiet smiling people lined up around the block in my own neighborhood, hundreds of them.

Here barely at sun-up, whole families are awake and in line. People are taking their children into the voting-booth with them, and when I ask, they say they want their kids to be able to grow up and say they were a part of this day.  When I finally get to the head of the line there are four sets of feet in the booth ahead of me, and out comes my neighbor and his three kids, happy and again, smiling. His little girl, the oldest, says her dad let her press the button.

A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Undercurrent" (22 June 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)

"Number One with a bullet" (22 October 2007)

"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)

"Windfall" (17 December 2007)

"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)

"Hardware madness: Katrina's three years" (24 August 2008)

"Living with Gustav" (1 September 2008)

"Loot" (8 October 2008)

"Nine-inch nails in the White House" (31 October 2008)

I vote.


I am writing this narrative and still coasting on the electricity of the moment. I must dress for work, as I have a guest speaker addressing my classes on location audio for film and video. I wish this day to pass, so I can be home and see what the rest of America has decided for itself. For all of us.

But one thing I know after all these years of cynical witness to the democratic process: this, this feeling, is what it is all about.

Fade to light


Leaving work early, I drive through streets filled with people holding up campaign placards - we have many local races to be settled today, too, and in New Orleans waving placards with candidates' names at passing cars along the streetcar lines is a longstanding grassroots method of getting a last-minute impression on evening voters. But the shouting and activity only serve to amplify my reeling state of mind. Even through the interaction with students and the day at school, I am still riding my morning excitement.

Friends are sending me cellphone shots of them in voting-booths turning the lever for Obama.


I turn on the television as soon as I get home. The process is already started. The information comes out in a jumble, from six or seven news outlets, all seeking to complicate matters enough that the viewer will be entrapped in their individual network's brand of storytelling. I try to watch without the audio, skip around, but all it does is make my stomach hurt.

I eat a plate of Cajun "C'est Si Bon" boudin, and feel better.


The networks start bringing out their visual big-guns, in extraordinarily different manners. The race outcome takes second place to the means of delivery.

NBC's news anchors at Rockefeller Center in New York have a camera situated above the famous ice-skating rink in the middle of the complex of skyscrapers. A map of the US has been etched into the ice's surface, and as states are announced as going for Obama or McCain, state shapes are brought out in blue or red depending on the victor and attached to the ice.

On the opposite end of the complexity spectrum, another network has a woman reporter in a green-screen tent in Chicago surrounded by thirty-five high-definition cameras. The cameras' simultaneous output is sent into a computer and electronically fed into their main studio in New York, where the woman's image is imbedded into a scene with the male anchor. The NY cameras can dolly around the two of them and the computer follows those cameras and inserts the woman in the proper position vis-à-vis the male anchor, creating what he calls a "hologram" rather like that of the princess carried by R2D2 in the first Star Wars episode.

They discuss the method of news delivery at length, but then let the female reporter go. The hologram actually had no news about the presidential race. It was just a hologram.


Although the popular vote is closer than I ever wished or imagined, it seems the electoral vote is now largely given to Obama. There are howls of joy through the neighbourhood - I have my windows open - as there are viewing parties all around my block. Obama loses the state of Louisiana, but wins Orleans parish with 78% of the vote.

US Representative William Jefferson, the multiply-indicted felon who refused to resign, is also re-elected, riding on the coattails of the new president. Unfortunately African-American empowerment has led to a "Yeah, he's a crook, but he's our crook" mentality about the man. The problem with this is immediately apparent: when Jefferson goes to jail, and he will go to jail, the Republican governor will appoint another Republican to fill Jefferson's Democratic seat until the next election.

But at least we have Obama.

3am Wednesday

I wake up dreaming of machines and gears, but sit up and notice how still it is. There is hardly a sound. No gunshots or sirens, hardly any traffic or train or boat noise.

On cue, the electricity promptly goes out. I remember now: I live in New Orleans.

6:30am Wednesday

The electricity is back on. The newspaper tells the story. The TV tells the story. The internet tells the story. And here I am, doing the same thing, from the ground up.

But the camera over the front porch has moved to a wider shot, gone up to a satellite, showing what in the trade we would normally call an "establishing shot", a wide shot designed to set the environment of the drama that is to come. In widescreen we see a whole nation, a nation imbedded somehow more firmly in the rest of the globe than when the script first started yesterday.


Music rises again. Over a string crescendo we hear a voiceover from a NEWLY-ELECTED PRESIDENT:


...we have placed our hands on the arc of history

and bent it towards a better world...

And so, the American movie starts a new scene.

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