יום שבת, 14 באוקטובר 2017

The Night When Bernie Was President

By William Brennan

The President Sanders Film Festival, in Williamsburg, was for movies that imagined a world in which Bernie won. But the event didn’t quite turn out that way.

On a recent evening, about two dozen Bernie Sanders supporters and assorted bons vivants crammed into the World Money Gallery, a boxcar-size events space on Montrose Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The occasion was the President Sanders Film Festival, at which four films would be shown. The gallery’s walls were decorated with glittery paintings of Sanders. “Better With Bernie—Baruch Hashem,” one read. Red and blue balloons floated at the ceiling, election-party-style; above the drinks table hung a large banner advertising “Bernie Sandwiches.” Amanda Mercado and Zachary Darvish, the festival’s organizers, stood beneath it, greeting people as they arrived. When attendees crossed the threshold, Mercado explained, they were stepping into an alternate universe, “where Bernie Sanders is President of the United States.”

In the post-election climate of shock and chagrin, the phrase “Bernie would have won” caught on among young democratic socialists and other diehard Sanders supporters, and became a meme on social media. It’s a taunting counterfactual, typically tossed off with a sense of melancholy and bit of righteousness—and, often, with the aim of needling centrist Democrats who didn’t get Sanders’s appeal. But it has also served as an expression of humor and hope. Among the works of fan art it has inspired is an anthem sung to the tune of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”: “Oh, mother dear, Clinton-Kaine were not the ones / ’cause Bernie, he would have won / Oh, Bernie, he would have won.”

Mercado and Darvish, both of whom supported Sanders, conceived of the festival last November, while smoking in Darvish’s apartment. They imagined it as a real-world extension of that post-election outpouring—a collective conjuring of the world they’d hoped for but which had not come to pass. “He’s becoming a symbol to people,” Darvish told me. “A Jill Stein festival wouldn’t have been as popular.”

“A Jill Stein festival!” Mercado chimed in. “Not a bad idea.”

The gallery lights dimmed, a projector whirred, and the first of the four films—titled, simply, “Bernie 2020”—appeared on the back wall. Its creator, a video artist named Raúl Andrés, is on a mission to get Sanders elected next time by posting “beautiful and compelling Bernie 2020 ads” on social media. His two short videos combined inspirational campaign-trail quotes with footage of the senator barnstorming the country. U2’s “Magnificent” thumped in the background. One of the films ended with an encouragement to use the hashtag #Bernie2020. Several people clapped.

Andrés’s work had a professional polish, but it didn’t offer a vision of what life in President Sanders’s America might look like. This seemed to be a challenge for others as well. The evening’s second film was “2016 Election,” by Brian Hanley, a Brooklyn-based video journalist. In a two-and-a-half-minute cartoon set to an original rap, Hanley touted Sanders’s reliance on small donors, his votes against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, and his desire to break up the big banks and legalize marijuana. “A democratic socialist is the remedy, and Donald Trump is the fucking enemy,” Hanley concluded, cutting to a shot of Sanders’s Presidential portrait hanging beside Barack Obama’s. Hanley had phone-banked for the campaign and, in April, 2016, rode around Grand Central on a longboard with a megaphone reminding passersby of the date of the New York primary. “2016 Election” was also part of those efforts: Hanley made the cartoon early in the primaries; with about four hundred thousand views, it had gone modestly viral. Now, he said, he was considering getting a Sanders quote tattooed on his arm: “Never, ever lose your sense of outrage.”

After Hanley’s film, the words “Bernie’s America” appeared on the wall, set against a black background. None of the filmmakers aside from Hanley had shown up, and it soon became clear why the creator of “Bernie’s America” might have chosen to stay home. His submission comprised five minutes of newsreel footage showing the recent political turmoil in Venezuela. Protesters charged through tear gas; devalued currency piled up on sidewalks; a man cried that health centers had run out of medicine needed to save his cancer-stricken wife. All of this had happened, newscasters explained, because of an “enormous economic crisis” brought about by the policies of “Socialist President Maduro.” The film was greeted with a few seconds of stunned silence.

“Boy, that was dark,” Darvish said. “You guys want sandwiches?”

Two drag queens, Scarlet Envy and Daphne Sumtimez, circled with platters of falafel wraps, feeding the hungry. Envy wore a blue-sequin dress and red heels; Sumtimez, with a denim jumpsuit and a red bandanna wrapped around her buoyant hair, paid homage to Rosie the Riveter. “In Bernie’s America, you don’t pay for sandwiches,” Sumtimez explained. “You just get them handed out by drag queens.” Nearby, Steven Nsubuga, a twenty-five-year-old Swedish immigrant who supported Sanders in spirit and had arrived in the U.S. just before the election, held forth on how normal and obvious Sanders’s vision would have seemed in Sweden. Foreigners, Nsubuga said, see the United States as “the jock sitting at the front of the classroom, making fun of everyone and being mean,” while countries like Sweden are the nerds diligently writing down everything the teacher says. Under President Sanders, Nsubuga believed, America would still be the jock, “but the jock would become woke and humble.”

After everyone had eaten, the fourth film was screened. It showed a young man listening to a cassette tape on which his mother had recorded a farewell message before fleeing the country under vague circumstances. The film made no overt references to Sanders, and Mercado had warned me ahead of time that it wasn’t clear if the entry had “anything to do with” the theme. But, when it ended, the room broke into applause. The gallery seemed to have lent it the proper context; the audience’s imagination had done the rest. “I liked that it showed immigration would still be a problem under Bernie,” Allie Anderson, a paralegal in a public defender’s office, said. Selena Coles, a publicist, noted that the movie was filled with Americana—Converse sneakers, Star Wars memorabilia, the Statue of Liberty—but that the voice on the tape spoke with a “weird, European-ish accent.” She wondered whether this meant that, under Sanders, “we had declined and other countries had risen.”

Ballots were handed out, and a vote was called: it was time to choose the winning entry. People leaned against walls, precariously cradling pencils and moonshine in the same hands. “No funny business!” someone shouted.

Once the votes had been counted, Darvish announced, “The winner is Brian Hanley, for ‘2016 Election.’ ” Hanley delivered a victory speech amid cheerful applause. Originally, Darvish and Mercado had planned to put the winner’s socialist credentials to the test by giving him the option of redistributing a cash prize equally among all four contestants. But, because none of the other filmmakers had shown up, the wealth remained concentrated.

Outside, on the sidewalk, Sumtimez and Envy reflected on what the night had meant. “Safety,” Sumtimez said, pointing to the gallery, its President Sanders art twinkling on the wall. Envy added that she was looking forward to 2020, when, she hoped, Trump would be resoundingly booted from office. Like many of the other attendees, she saw a tiny silver lining in his election: in revealing the extent of the possible, it had opened politics to unconventional candidates who might be able to trounce Trump. Almost anyone would do.

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