Film Review: “Democracy Through the Looking Glass” — Take a Good Look

The interviewees sound warnings about how we have self-sorted, online and in the real world, into echo-chamber communities of like-minded people.

Democracy through the Looking Glass, directed by Kevin Bowe. Screening on July 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Regent Theatre in Arlington, MA, with a panel discussion including Bowe, Dan Kennedy (of Northeastern University and WGBH TV) and Stephen Crawford (Public Relations and Political Consultant). Also screening on July 26 and 27 at The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth, NH.

A scene from the documentary "Democracy Through the Looking Glass."

A scene from the documentary “Democracy through the Looking Glass.”

By Betsy Sherman

Eight months out from the presidential election, we’re well past the what-just-happened? stage. The service that Kevin Bowe’s new documentary Democracy through the Looking Glass provides is a deep look at the matters of how the process of arriving at the two major party nominees happened, and how Donald Trump became the voters’ choice for president. The film is an insightful assessment of our political and media landscape (both journalistic and social media) in the period from the early days of campaigning in New Hampshire until a few months into the Trump administration. It’s no big revelation that politics and the press’ coverage of it are interlaced, but as Bowe lays out the issues for our digestion, he covers the didactic bases remarkably well and also infuses his film with a fresh and personal outlook from his New Hampshire home base.

Bowe, a video producer who decided to get press credentials and “embed” himself with the media as campaigning for the New Hampshire primary ramped up in 2015, built up a wealth of footage with which he supports his post-mortem observations. In the midst of what became a nine-month “odyssey,” he decided that more important than the race itself was documenting the “dance between political insiders and the media.” Capitalizing on his coverage of campaign events both big and intimate, Bowe guides us through this journey in voice-over, and weaves in commentary from a well chosen roster of journalists and academics. These commentators discuss the ways in which the concept of an informed electorate is slipping away in this country, and whether the trend can be reversed.

My earbuds would disagree with Bowe’s statement that the media doesn’t cover itself. I listen to the superb public radio show On the Media, but it’s probably accurate that the tough questions raised by that show and others like it roll off the backs of most media practitioners like water off a duck. As far as the absurdity implied by the documentary’s Lewis Carroll title, it’s appropriate when applied to some of the candidates, many members of the press, certain voters and a wide swath of the social-media-sphere.

Democracy captures the exhilaration, paired with a sobering sense of responsibility, felt by New Hampshire voters who have a chance to interact with national figures at “the local little clam dive.” Bowe starts filming when dozens of candidates flood the Granite State trying to find their footing, before their talking points are in place. Donald Trump arrives with the advantage of decades of brand-building. Bowe records a Trump fan who, 14 months before the presidential election, proclaims significantly, “I’m ready to err on the side of crazy rather than caution.” The filmmaker finds excitement surrounding Bernie Sanders as well, but this phenomenon gets only a small fraction of the coverage that Trump gets.

Bowe concluded early in the process that our “media system was incapable of thoughtfully covering national elections.” Emphasis here is on “thoughtfully,” since the amount of coverage was overwhelming. Democracy zooms out from New Hampshire for a big-picture look at how the media distorts Americans’ political realities and undermines its own credibility. The film is divided into sections, with each exploring a self-inflicted failure on the part of a media that:
• missed a bi-partisan popular uprising, right in front of them
• focused on the process and the horse race and not people and their problems
• treated campaign issues like show-biz props
• ignored real stories for all the shiny objects.

Bowe shares footage of Carly Fiorina bluntly describing the gulf between what reporters are asking her and what average people want to talk about. He then illustrates her point with a montage of contrasts, such as journalists asking about poll numbers and voters bringing up topics that directly affect their lives.

The filmmaker lays out a case history that he himself plays a part in. A New Hampshire woman caring for her husband and her mother, both of whom suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, made an effort to raise awareness of the disease among the candidates. Bowe considered this laudable, and produced a video spotlighting her. The video made its way to the Clinton campaign, and Hillary not only reached out to the woman, she formulated a policy to address the disease. However, the press didn’t pick up on any of this activity.

The bizarro counterpart to that story is one of a New Hampshire tattoo artist who off-handedly mentioned to a reporter that he would, if asked, tattoo a portrait of Donald Trump on anyone’s skin, for no charge. Press outlets, including some from overseas, scrambled to cover this (fun!!!) story before one tattoo had even been etched. Bowe dubs this, not fake news, because it happened, but “mutated news.”

Bowe has a background in substance-abuse prevention and brought his informed point of view to candidate forums, in hopes that the politicians would recognize the urgency of dealing with the opioid epidemic. He had hopes as well that the media would give this pressing issue the attention it gave to scary stories about ebola and zika.

In the last section of Democracy, the focus shifts from the responsibility of the press to the responsibility of the citizen-consumer in the digital age (and the “post-truth” era). The interviewees sound warnings about how we have self-sorted, online and in the real world, into echo-chamber communities of like-minded people. Although this conversation has become familiar, it’s worth continuing, and it’s fleshed-out well in the film (although I feel sensitized lately to the iconography of an Expert sitting in front of his or her wall of books). There’s a peppering of tweets and memes from our 24-hour sideshow, and an expedition into the land of conspiracy theorists, including the dangerous labyrinth that was Pizzagate. The stakes got personal for one of the professor-commentators: she created a resource for her students that evaluated the dependability of news websites, some of which pushed fake news. Once on the Web, the list sparked a wildfire of anger that blazed past character assassination of the prof to threats of violence.

Democracy’s speakers are pessimistic on the chances that our climate of polarization will change in the short term, but at least some have faith that increased media literacy, and an adherence to old-school values by the press, will lift the level of discourse in the long term. New institutions may need to be created to replace the old. The film wraps up by calling for reflection on whom we choose to have power over us “via the ballot box or the cable box.”

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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