In the 2018 midterm elections, a then-record 117 women won seats in Congress, leading many writers to call it the “Year of the Woman.” Documentarians Hannah Rosenzweig and Wendy Sachs followed three Democratic women running in 2018, and the result of their years of work is a film called “Surge.”
“So many women were activated to actually run for office—women who had never thought they would run,” said Sachs. “We had a diverse group of women across the country of different ethnicities, different backgrounds, different colors.”
Sachs and Rosenzweig had both been part of a cabal of creatives called “Filmmakers for Hillary,” a group that strongly backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 and has since continued to produce videos critical of President Trump. Sachs and Rosenzweig said that even though their own politics tend leftward, they were hoping to have Republican subjects be a part of “Surge.”
“We were telling a story as filmmakers, as journalists, as storytellers,” Sachs said. “We wanted to tell the story of what was happening in 2018.”
To find subjects, they went to the Women’s Campaign School at Yale, a nonpartisan “boot camp” and training ground for the politically motivated. They courted Democrats as well as Republicans, but ultimately, they said there just weren’t many viable documentary candidates on the right side of the aisle.
“After spending several months really trying to find Republican women who were running, vetting them and seeing if their races would go beyond a primary, we found that it was really a Democratic surge of women running for office,” Sachs said of the state of politics in 2018. “[Republican] incumbents were running, but there were very few challengers.”
(The irony is that now, heading into the 2020 elections, more Republican women are running than Democrats.)
The filmmakers settled on their subjects. Lauren Underwood, barely in her thirties at the time of filming, sought to become the youngest Black woman elected to Congress in a hotly contested Illinois district. Liz Watson was an attorney in Indiana hoping to flip her conservative district to the Democrats. And from the Dallas suburbs came Jana Lynne Sanchez, vying with Republican Ron Wright for Texas’s 6th Congressional District.
Co-director Rosenzweig said that Underwood, the candidate from Illinois, found the experience of watching “Surge” to be healing in a way she never might have anticipated initially.
“Watching the film helped her reflect back on the race and move forward on some things that had happened we showed in the film and had helped her to process,” said Rosenzweig. “I’ve found this with other films I’ve made, and it’s one of my favorite parts of filmmaking. You think it’s all about us documenting [a subject] and then that’s it and the story is out in the world. But then it’s really powerful for [Underwood] to see her whole experience represented.”
An issue the filmmakers perhaps did not anticipate would be a glut of political documentaries, all competing not only for the same subjects but for the same sources of funding, which is difficult for documentarians to obtain in the best of times.
“There is a new genre that came out from the 2018 election of female political documentaries. We were told at one point there were ten to twelve in production,” Sachs said. “I’ve never experienced anything so challenging in my life,” she said, adding that she believes having two women at the helm of the documentary may have also produced a certain reluctance from some financiers. “I don’t want to sound like sour grapes, but I think the reality is that there still is not enough room for women—forget about women-directed films, but women-led films.
“But we learned how a small cabal of women finance women-directed and women-centered films,” she said, but cautioned that, even then, securing funds was far from easy.
“Since there’s so many documentary filmmakers out there—as there should be, as it’s such an important genre—there just isn’t [enough] funding,” added Rosenzweig. “But we still got it made. We’re very proud of the film.”
Although “Surge” is coming out now, showcasing stories of both heartbreak and triumph on the 2018 campaign trail, the filmmakers say they are more than a bit anxious heading into the final months of the election season due to voter suppression, attacks on mail-in ballots and how the coronavirus could make an already tense situation so much worse.
“I’m trying to balance out with hope and optimism that people are more energized and paying attention,” Sachs said. “I’m hopeful that young people and other people who maybe sat on the sidelines in 2016 will realize their vote matters, and who you put into office matters.
“So for Hannah and I, [our goal] with this film is to really engage the electorate. To motivate people at the grass-roots that they can change their communities.”
“There’s more women running in 2020 than in 2018, so I’m feeling quite hopeful about the surge continuing,” added Rosenzweig. “There’s a lot to be hopeful for, but as Wendy said, it’s a scary and anxious time.”
SURGE will premiere on Showtime’s channel SHOxBET on September 8 at 9:00pm ET, and will be available on the Showtime Anytime app on September 9th.