Featured photo: A man stands between protesters and law enforcement officers during the March to the Polls in Graham on Oct. 31. (photo by Carolyn de Berry)

Nat Frum likes to tell people that Oct. 31 was the first, second, third and fourth time he’s ever been tear gassed.

“It’s debilitating,” Frum says.

Frum recalls his time in Graham during the I Am Change Legacy March to the Polls during which Alamance County police deployed pepper spray at about 250 people who were taking part in the peaceful demonstration. Frum was there with a documentary crew to shoot footage for his upcoming film, Our Messy Democracy, in which he casts North Carolina as a microcosm for the politically divided country as a whole.

Nat Frum (courtesy photo)

While Frum has used the term “tear gas,” local law enforcement agencies have alleged that they never used tear gas, only pepper spray during the event.

Still, Frum says it was a terrible experience.

“I mean it was horrifying. I think there was a lot of sense among people being tear gassed like, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It wasn’t necessary; it was, frankly, bad policing.”

Frum grew up in Washington DC and has been involved in politics his whole life, he says. His father, David Frum, is currently a senior editor of The Atlantic and is a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush. His mother is a journalist, so politics were always welcome at the dinner table, he says. The film is his first documentary as a director and Frum says he had always wanted to be in a swing state during an election, and North Carolina seemed as good as any.

“North Carolina has always been very interesting to me,” Frum says. “It’s the state of Jesse Helms, but also John Edwards. It’s always seemed to be a truly purple state. I wanted to be there to get a better understanding of how local politics and state races play out.”

During the course of about a month, Frum and his crew followed local and state candidates as they worked on the campaign trail prior to Election Day. Frum says that he reached out to both Democratic and Republican candidates, but found that those associated with the Republican party weren’t as open to being interviewed.

“It was pretty upsetting,” Frum says. “We really set out with the goal of humanizing everyone…. But the candidates, maybe because of the new Borat movie, they just did not feel comfortable letting cameras in unless they knew who we were.”

When Frum told GOP candidates that they were independent and unbiased, that seemed to be a red flag to them.

“It’s an unfortunate bias of the piece but you can only cover who lets you cover them,” Frum says.

From left to right: Akene Farmer-Michos, Kevin Gebon, State House candidate Aimy Steele and Nat Frum. Beatrice Frum, who also worked on the project, is not pictured here. (courtesy photo)

In the Triad, Frum’s crew followed Democratic NC House District 59 candidate Nicole Quick who ended up losing against incumbent John Hardister, and in Alamance County, they followed District 63 candidate Ricky Hurtado, who beat Republican incumbent Stephen Ross. His crew also interviewed voters and candidates near Charlotte and Fayetteville. And of course, they were following the events in Graham.

“We had heard about the statue and the controversy around the statue,” Frum says. “We had gone to the statue to take video and had been confronted by a pro-monument group so we kind of knew that it was a volatile place.”

When Frum learned about the March to the Polls, he and his crew decided to show up to capture footage for the film. When they arrived, Frum says marchers were kneeling in honor of George Floyd. What happened next was sudden and confusing, Frum says.

“There seemed to be a designed escalation by local police to make it appear like a riot,” Frum says. “They were very quick to use pepper spray.”

That’s when Frum and his staff got caught up in the clouds of smoke. Triad City Beat’s senior editor Jordan Green and photographer Carolyn de Berry were also on the scene at the time.

“I saw children getting tear gassed and elderly people getting tear gassed,” Frum says. “It was just so unnecessary….It seemed like they wanted a fight.”

And while the event in Graham understandably takes up a portion of the film, Frum says that the whole piece is much more than the events of just that day.

He recalled how they traveled across the state and were able to talk candidly to voters across the political spectrum and really get a sense for what they were concerned about leading into the election.

“We tended to find that people on the right side had a lot of economic problems and concerns,” Frum says. “Like they said the cities are doing really well but there are parts of the state that feel like they are being left behind. A lot of people resent the Charlottes and the Durhams that are blowing up and leaving their towns behind.”

Frum says that those on the left also had similar concerns about economics, but also about racial equity.

“They were two sides of the same coin,” Frum says. “You’d be in a town like Burlington or King where there’s a lot of economic anxiety amongst voters and a lot of fear that their needs aren’t being talked about. That was a common thread.”

As for the candidates, Frum says that seeing them work so hard was what inspired him the most.

“Just really seeing democracy in action was really cool,” Frum says. “It’s easy out in LA to be quite cynical about politics, and it’s easy to forget that there are people who are genuinely trying to do good.”

For the next couple of weeks Frum will be editing the film, and he hopes to release it sometime in February or March. He also plans to submit it to local film festivals like RiverRun in Winston-Salem and the Full Frame Festival in Durham. And he says he’s not done with North Carolina.

“I don’t think I’m done being fascinated by politics, and North Carolina politics is still a story that’s going on,” Frum says. “It’s not a resolved story by any means.”

Learn more about the documentary on Instagram at @ourmessydemocracy and on Twitter @swingstate2020.

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