What happens when you mix politically conscious 18-year-olds, a retired senator of Alaska, and a progressive presidential campaign designed to pester the Democratic Party establishment on hot-button …
What happens when you mix politically conscious 18-year-olds, a retired senator of Alaska, and a progressive presidential campaign designed to pester the Democratic Party establishment on hot-button topics?
Well, the answer is a rollercoaster of a political campaign that started after two teenagers from Ardsley, New York made the unusual request to former Senator of Alaska, Mike Gravel, to run for president in 2020.
David Oks and Henry Williams, aptly named the “Gravel Teens,” formed an unlikely connection with the retired Alaskan senator, and tried to convince Gravel to run for president one last time.
Astonishingly, Gravel obliged. The former senator and 2008 presidential candidate even gave the teens access to his Twitter account, where they spread the word about the bizarre last-ditch campaign of an 88-year-old running for president of the United States.
HOW IT STARTED
After reading about Gravel’s presidential bid in February 2019, director and filmmaker Skye Wallin immediately jumped at the opportunity to document the one-of-a-kind campaign, and began to chronicle a story that became “American Gadfly.”
The campaign’s objective wasn’t necessarily to win the Democratic nomination, but to operate as a “gadfly”, or a disrupter, and challenge moderate Democrats on their policies and beliefs.
The campaign utilized Twitter and other forms of social media to pester presidential candidates like Pete Buttigeig, John Delaney, and now-President Joe Biden, on important topics to young voters like healthcare, social justice, and student loan debt.
Wallin reached out to Gravel about filming the campaign, seeing it as “the perfect blend of new contemporary youth involvement in democracy, plus a chance to tell [Gravel’s] story, a story that has largely been ignored by history.”
Previously directing short films in the fantasy and thriller genres, Wallin transitioned to the documentary style, seeing a golden opportunity to cover the atypical campaign.
“I wanted to get involved in politics in some creative capacity,” Wallin said.
From ridiculing and jousting with presidential candidates on Twitter, to collaborating with 2020 presidential hopefuls like Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang, the Gravel 2020 campaign was a spectacle to record for Wallin.
Documenting the teens and their story diverged from the typical adult for Wallin, as he felt responsible for keeping them safe while filming and developing the documentary.
“The kids have a vibrancy; they’re an extremely intelligent group of kids. They’re sort of wise beyond their years,” Wallin said. “When I’m filming with older subjects, you don’t feel as much of a responsibility for their safety.”
The documentary displays the numerous triumphs and failures the Gravel Teens encountered along the campaign trail, and the conflicts that formed as the teens worked tirelessly on the campaign.
“I wanted to show the human element, which is not always too glowing,” Wallin said. “They love the film, which was a relief because I didn’t set out to make a puff piece.”
The small size of the Gravel 2020 campaign, compared to the large amount of staff typically involved in a presidential campaign, worked to Wallin’s advantage when documenting the project.
“Henry Williams (one of the Gravel Teens) remarked that the film is able to tell a full story of a political campaign, because it’s so small. The aspect that the Gravel 2020 was so small was actually a benefit to the film, in the sense that I could actually cover everything,” Wallin said.
“The core campaign was about three or four people, plus Mike. I could tell all of their stories in a contained way.”
Getting to film and interact with the late Mike Gravel was a highlight for Wallin, who’d admired the former senator of Alaska after seeing him on the debate stage in the 2007 Democratic primaries.
“Mike Gravel was one of my heroes … how often does someone get to meet one of their political icons?” Wallin asked.
“Becoming friends with Mike was the ultimate gift. It was incredibly meaningful to me to have worked with Mike in his last years.”
Gravel, who passed away in June of this year, was known for his progressive political views as a senator in the 1960s and onward, advocating for direct democracy, LGBTQ+ rights, and much more during his time in the political arena. An anti-war advocate, he was perhaps best known for reading the Pentagon Papers (which documented the U.S. government’s more than 20-year military and political involvement in Vietnam) into the official record, expanding the public debate about the government’s military actions in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, while protecting those from prosecution who made the Pentagon Papers public.
“It will probably take some years for me to fully grasp how meaningful this project has been, and working so closely with Mike,” Wallin said. “Mike was so warm and so intelligent and open … willing to trust in people to do the right thing by him.”
HOW IT ENDED
Although the Gravel 2020 campaign ended in defeat for Gravel and the teens running his presidential campaign, Wallin is proud of the significance of the inspiring campaign, and the opportunity to document it on a daily basis.
“Anyone can be inspired by message of the Gravel Teens. Here are a group of kids who saw something broken in their society, and instead of complaining and bitching about it they decided to jump into the arena,” Wallin said.
“These kids chose to do an asymmetrical, wacky, presidential campaign for the oldest man in American history to run for president. I think people can be inspired by it.”
Although Gravel didn’t win the Democratic nomination, Wallin believes that the film shows the significant impact that anyone can make in politics, even at the grassroots level. By pressuring many of the presidential candidates, or acting as gadflies, the Gravel Teens were able to bring to light certain topics that were not being discussed enough or at all on the debate stage.
“Just by saying, for example, ‘the military industrial complex” or ‘universal basic income’ … you introduce it to the public and make it part of the public conversation,” Wallin said.
“I think there’s a very positive aspect of this new way of campaigning where there’s less of the importance of [the] Iowa [Caucus], which I think is a good thing. It allows people to promote ideas that are ignored by establishment media.”
Wallin noted the downsides of this new campaigning method, and the internet era, where online communities can become closed off against differing thoughts to create echo chambers on social media.
After the presidential campaign Gravel died after the Gravel Institute was founded, the teens helped to found the Gravel Institute, a progressive think tank aimed at covering pertinent political topics, and countering right-wing disinformation. The think tank carries Gravel’s name in honor of his impact on American politics and progressive leaders in the modern age.
In the near future, Wallin plans to continue making documentaries, as well as returning to his fiction projects that he’s very passionate about.
“Where I’m heading in the next 20, 30, 40 years of my career, I hope there will be a blend of documentary work, and of fiction work,” Wallin said.
Wallin plans to continue making documentaries about topics that interest him, including the environment, U.S. politics, and much more.
“It brings a tear to my eye that these kids gave [Gravel] such a gift,” Wallin said. “He was just so happy for this roller coaster that these kids took him on.”
“American Gadfly” will be available for viewing at the virtual Port Townsend Film Festival, starting at 8 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 23.
To watch the documentary or learn more about the film, visit https://watch.eventive.org/ptff2021/play/612e703afa3f2900696ae34e.