Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 02, 2022 12:47 pm 
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A boring documentary - and that's good

In a way this is the most boring documentary of the year, a mass of little details about people in the small state of Rhode Island working on the elections boards, trivial specifics of answering phone queries, setting up polling places and seeing that they're manned, monitoring vote scanning machines, verifying voters' addresses and names. On the other hand, nothing could be more crucial. The time is the 2020 US presidential election. An historic one, some say the most important in our history. It was a historically large voter turnout. Ten times as many mail-in votes came in as in 2016. The ballots were painstakingly counted - despite malfunctioning machines requiring manual scanning, despite three kinds of voting, mail-in, early/emergency voting, and election day voting, despite polling place volunteer no-shows - Joseph Biden wins over Donald Trump, and the state's four electoral college votes are officially designated to Biden.

The hardworking elections officials do their job. The state is so small that a high ranking official - as hard-working as any of them - says they probably could personally deliver all the ballots to the voters (somehow that doesn't seem likely). They do personally deliver ballots to some people. It is pretty clear that despite COVID with its problems of staffing and protection, missing staff members on election days and everything being different, nothing big goes wrong, no one is in the least partisan (candidates and parties are never mentioned till vote-counting time), workers are dedicated, patient, and enthusiastic (despite some cursing). Clearly there is no hanky panky. Glitches aside, the machinery works. Or at least it does in Rhode Island in 2022. This is the specialty of the filmmakers: grass roots politics: the heart of the political system.

But there is an undercurrent. Along the way see one clip of Donald Trump speaking. He is sowing the seeds of suspicion long ahead of the election and the count: "They cheat, they cheat, they cheat," he says. And for his followers that is all it took. Those who follow the news know well what happened on January 6: the United States Capitol attack. By questioning the validity of our electoral system, by promising that he would not accept the election unless he won, Trump undermined the basis of American democracy, the system of a national election.

And then go back to the patient, plodding, energetic scenes of No Time To Fail, the people at the headquarters in Providence, the capitol and largest city of Rhode Island, and you see the power of this film. We know that subsequently a myriad of recounts and legal challenges yielded the Trump camp nothing. Biden won. What has been going on is not right, that Trump's followers, who remain numerous, believe in a big lie, a delusion that the 2020 presidential election was "stolen." We also know from the recent conclusion of the January 6 Committee's deliberations in Congress that Trump acknowledged he had lost from the beginning, but sought ways of changing the vote. The fact that 70% of Republicans still believe Trump's transparently false claim of a stolen election shows that American democracy is in serious danger.

The chief election officer gets renominated at the end and takes the oath, but in voiceover he declares that the system of elections relies on faith, and once you undermine that faith, "once you go down that road," you may haver get back. Titles point out that many states have undermined the election process, changing regulations and limiting the vote, and many election professionals have left their jobs. Again, this is a crisis of the American democracy.

No Time to Fail, in its quiet way, provides some kind of protection against the big lie. But it's a small protection, and skeptics would require far wider coverage of the US electoral system to prove that it works, not just in Rhode Island, but in all the states. And the wave of Republican maneuvering to undermine free elections will have to be forcefully combatted, ideally through enacting a new federal voting law.

No Time to Fail, 90 mins., debuted at Portsmouth NH Oct. 7, 2022 and Boston (GlobeDocs) Oct. 13, 2022. In is in theaters in late Oct. 2022 with a national streaming event Oct. 27. There will be a special screening in San Francisco at the Roxie Theater Oct. 30 followed by a panel discussing the film and "The Sate of the State of Election Officials."

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