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The Trump Phenomenon as Explained by the Filmmaker Who Got There First

Documentarian Sean Dunne has made a career out of understanding people who’ve been otherwise ignored

The film opens on a mime standing in a small room. She’s young, slender and pretty. In front of her, a teakettle rests on a stove. An astrology chart is tacked to the wall behind her, and a spinet piano inhabits the space to her left. Within moments, the comely brunette starts writhing along to music only she can hear. She swings her hips and tugs suggestively at the top of her skirt. Then, she winks toward the screen of her laptop, which is about three feet away. She waves at it, blows it a kiss. This is Aella, a 24-year-old cam girl whose imagination has led her to experiment with performing sex work as a mime.

It’s also a look inside the mind of filmmaker Sean Dunne, who directed Cam Girlz, the 2015 documentary in which Aella co-stars. At 35, Dunne has 11 documentaries under his belt, all of which focus on subcultures otherwise dismissed by mainstream society. In addition to cam girls, he’s trained his lens on the Gathering of the Juggalos (American Juggalo), a small town in West Virginia ravaged by opioid addiction (Oxyana) and a New York man who makes his living hustling bowling games (The Bowler).

Dunne’s unusual look at the world is framed, first and foremost, by compassion, and presenting his subjects without judgment. It’s an effort he calls “agenda-free filmmaking”; there’s no preaching, no dogma, no hashtags, no call-to-action. (In fact, he doesn’t even ask you to pay for his films; he releases all of them for free on his website.) His style has been widely praised; The Hollywood Reporter called Oxyana, which was awarded Best New Documentary at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, “a superbly put-together film.” Indiewire named it “sensitive, powerful, and important.”

His most recent film is Trump Rally, a 20-minute documentary that was shot entirely on iPhones. The film takes place at a Trump campaign stop in January 2016 — a time when most of the country still considered the then-candidate a sideshow act. Dunne went, he says, because he wanted to know: “Who are the people voting for this guy?”

A year later, the entire country is still asking the same thing. We caught up with Dunne over the phone from his home in Brooklyn to talk about Trump’s darkly cynical M.O., how Dunne healed his broken relationship with his dad through his work and the critical importance of empathy at this particular moment in history.

So who are Trump’s supporters, and what made you so curious about them so early in the electoral process?
Cass [Greener, Dunne’s executive producer and girlfriend] and I were addicted to MSNBC at the time, and all Trump did was rave about how big his crowds were. So we were like, “How come we’ve never seen these crowds? How come the media never turns the camera on it?” We happened to be out in Vegas a few months later and heard there was going to be a rally while we were there. It was just great timing.

There were about 10,000 people at this shitty casino on a Wednesday morning. I expected to be a lot more viscerally turned off by them, but what actually happened was that I felt this deep sense of empathy as soon as I got in the elevator.

I’ve always felt like I was a bit of an outsider myself, then you go to these outside communities and it’s like, “Man, I get it, I know your struggle.” To feel ostracized at school, to feel your parents are fucked up. I didn’t have some privileged upbringing. I can relate with a lot of the struggles you’re seeing [in the film]. I couldn’t disagree with Trump supporters more when it comes to their politics, but I feel where they’re coming from. I went to Bernie rallies. I’m out there; I want my voice heard, too.

Right now, these people feel super condescended to, like we’ve looked down on them. And I think anyone that feels condescended to would stop listening. They don’t want to read some big think piece about why they’re behaving this way, or why they don’t matter. They don’t give a shit about that. So they finally just decided to take a side.

They’re complex beings who’ve lived lives that I don’t understand. Simple things like food supply — you go to some of these places, and they’re absolute food deserts. There’s nothing they can eat except the most processed, sugary stuff. Try having a decent day waking up and eating like that, or drinking a can of Sunkist or Mountain Dew. Try formulating a decent thought. I haven’t walked in their shoes for even a minute, so how can I say they’re off-base for having this belief system?

Do you think that they believe Trump understands these things — and their plight — even though his life has been the exact opposite of many of theirs?
He crystallized their fears. They feel forgotten, and Trump plays to those weaknesses, those angers and those fears. He’s playing to one of the darkest things you could play to, and he blatantly make things up to reinforce those narratives.

The thing is, his supporters aren’t hearing us. It’s like we’re speaking a foreign language. Trump, however, is speaking their language, and his message is carrying weight in their communities. He’s hitting that tone they like — that habitual contempt.

That’s Trump: He’s had a great life; he inherited millions, and all he does is complain. He’s a miserable person, and he leverages that. He understands that the American worker is frustrated because they’re becoming obsolete. He’s saying, “We’ll get those jobs back!” when those jobs aren’t coming back. When he screamed about the media at the rally in Vegas, that’s what seemed to get them going the most; it’s almost like these people feel personally offended by the media.

So I can’t blame his supporters, but I can blame him. What he’s doing is so fucking dark; it’s probably the most cynical game you could possibly play, with this big billionaire swooping in to try to be the savior of the working class by playing to all their fears and insecurities.

Did any supporter in particular stand out to you?
You know who I think about all the time? The kid in the middle [of the film], who says his name is America. He looks like a detective from the 1950s. I had my eye on him all day; he seemed like he was on acid. I had this amazing interaction with him. I never ask people that; I never ask, “What’s your name?” But for some reason I did with him, and there was this pause, and he just said, “America.”

Trump’s rallies began erupting into race-based violence soon after you attended the one in Vegas. Did you sense any sort of vitriol or racism boiling up?
There was a lot of dog-whistle stuff going on, but nobody was being super explicit. They were kind of dancing around the issue. They didn’t say they hate Mexicans; they just said they want a wall.

To me, it was hard to pick up on, because I don’t want to assume that about my fellow Americans — that they’ve given in to hate and racism. But some of them have.

We had one black person with us filming. There were probably 10,000 people at this rally, and among these 10,000 people, he was the one black guy. And the other people there were treating him so weird — they would go up to him and shake his hand and thank him for being there. It was just so racially charged, like, “We know we’re in opposition to everything you probably stand for; thank you for being here anyway.” The judgment and the guilt and the shame cycle were so palpable.

Did he feel threatened at all?
I don’t think so — not any more than he would in his normal, everyday life — but it was almost like they were saying, “I don’t want to hate you. I’m just a little nervous, ‘cause I’m not around black people that often and I don’t know what to do.”

Let’s talk about some of your other films. How did you decide whom to feature in Oxyana, and what was your process in terms of getting people who are addicted to drugs — and ostensibly have no reason to trust you — to open up the way they did?
When we first rolled through Oceana [the West Virginia town where the film is set], we ran into a Juggalo there. I had just made a film about Juggalos, so we started talking, and it turned out he knew the ins and outs about the devastating drug epidemic there. So we had that connection; then, slowly but surely, we earned people’s trust. They weren’t just giving it out; they wanted to distrust us, and they did. But I think they started seeing the merit in what we were doing, and how we were doing it.

We also wanted to avoid expert testimony; it makes these types of films feel less human and approachable. Instead, we were like, “Each day, let’s see if we can shoot a person or two, even if it’s B-roll, that captures the essence of what’s going on here.” We talked to teachers, the town prosecutor, a doctor that’s at the hospital where people are overdosing. You have all these people who are addicted; people admitting to prostitution. But I think it honestly spoke to the desperation of the situation. They wanted their voices heard.

You’re right. It felt like it wasn’t even so much that they wanted an outcome, it was more like, “If I can just tell you my story…”
That was the main criticism of the film: “What’s the takeaway? What’s the solution? What should people be doing?” But that’s not what the film is about. It’s about asking better questions of ourselves and elected officials. It’s not, “Here’s the answer.” I don’t have the answer to this drug epidemic; that’s way outside my pay grade. I think it’s about that blank: “If I can just tell my story, then….”

When an audience consumes any of my films, they’re completing a circuit. It isn’t finished until audiences consume these projects and cast meaning on them. That’s something I’m super interested in; not saying, “Here’s how it is. Here’s the call to action. If you just do this hashtag, it’ll all get better.” ‘Cause this situation is fucked; it goes deep, and way beyond policy. That’s where it starts to hit home: What are your judgments? Maybe this will make you be nicer to your cousin who’s been addicted to heroin for years. I want people to look inside and say, “Where is my heart at? Why am I judging?”

Sean Dunne. Image via Facebook

Do you think you’ve become more open-minded with each film?
Oh yeah. I think of documentary as a spiritual practice for myself. I know that sounds off-putting, but what I mean by spiritual is that it’s a way of reconnecting me to my environment and the people who inhabit this place with me — getting to know myself again, and seeing how I’m reacting to these people and places. With each film, my heart opens more and more, and walls have come down inside myself that I didn’t even know existed.

A huge dose of compassion and empathy came when I did Oxyana. Not only are these people addicted to drugs, but they’re poor — they have to go to great lengths to get a fix. I’d grown up with my dad struggling with substance abuse. In a lot of ways, he was a man of the 1970s; he was a recreational drug user who loved acid, mushrooms and weed. He started growing up, had kids in his mid-20s and had to leave all that stuff behind. Instead, he started drinking; then, when I was in my teens, he started messing with prescription drugs and got way into pharmaceuticals.

I carried a lot of anger and resentment toward him that I maybe didn’t understand. When I went down to Oceana and saw what people were going through there, it forced me to do some forgiveness, and it helped our relationship evolve. It was critical for me in understanding that there’s another way to approach the relationship than that sort of Intervention-style, “Here’s all the reasons I can’t have you in my life… If you’re not gonna go fucking cold turkey you’re not gonna be in my life…”

We can laugh about it now. There’s a lot of self-forgiveness and a lot of healing.

What’s the unifying issue that ties all your films together?
Income inequality. If you want to bring it to some level of political discourse, that’s probably right next to climate change for me. Everything else spiders from there. I think you’re seeing the hellscape that the Reagan economy and income inequality wrought; people doing nefarious, repugnant things behind the scenes that fucked the little guy and the working class. And what’s more reprehensible than anything else is that they’ve ramped up our fears and turned us on each other. And once we’ve beaten each other into submission, we’re just going to go back and do their work for them.