Meet the women behind America’s largest presidential protest, ever.
Questions for the filmmaker who followed the women behind the March.
For many Americans, our first encounter with the Women’s March came on November 9th, 2016, right after a sordid presidential election, when Hawaiian grandmother Teresa Shook took to the popular political Facebook group — Pantsuit Nation — to share her outrage with women across the nation. She simply wrote, “I think we should march.”
Four weeks later, organizers credited Shook’s plea with igniting what would become the largest demonstration in the nation’s capital. For months, CNN’s Contessa Gayles — and her entirely female crew — embedded with a core group of women who came together to make sense of the nation’s confusion and unease, and organize fellow women across the globe to unite and protest. Contessa’s piece resulted in a twenty minute documentary that aired just 48 hours after the march in Washington, D.C.. She spoke with us about how the film came to life.
NGP: What an amazing piece that came together so quickly. How did you first hear about the march, and the women organizing it?
CG: Thank you. I heard about the march the same way thousands of women did in the first few days — on Facebook. I saw the original event post soon after the election. Here were already thousands of people who marked that they were “going.” I reached out to the women listed as event hosts on the page via Facebook Messenger, and it all went from there.
NGP: Was there a moment while you were filming with them when you felt like the march could be something bigger than people expected?
CG: I always had an inkling that it would be big, and that’s what led me to pitch it as a story early on. I do know that others were skeptical about turnout, as marching on Washington has become a bit of a routine thing over time. But the climate of resistance in this particular moment was certainly ripe for something massive in scale. What I was very surprised by was the extent and size of all of the sister marches that happened across the country, and especially around the world. That level of coordination and international solidarity really floored me. It was bigger than anyone expected.
NGP: This was a predominantly female crew. Do you have any thoughts on women in the newsroom and how that’s changing?
CG: This was actually an entirely female crew in the field. Our motion graphics designers were men, but otherwise, from pre- to post-production, we were an all-female film team. Given the subject matter and our subjects, I do think that there is an authenticity in the storytelling that came as a result. Diversity and inclusion in the newsroom is an imperative for countless reasons. Bringing people from different backgrounds to the table will only increase the types of stories you have access to telling, and the variety of people who will trust you with their stories. Trust is always at play between subjects and the journalists/filmmakers telling their stories, no matter who you are. But, I consistently find that people who come from historically marginalized groups, who feel that they have been misrepresented (if not ignored altogether) by mainstream media — which has historically been very white and very male — want to know that their stories will be told with depth and nuance and context. There are barriers that need to be broken down, and who you choose to send to cover certain stories matters to that end.
NGP: The organizers came from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities. Was there any conflict during the shoot between the organizers?
CG: The emphasis on intersectional feminism and centering the voices and concerns of minority women was constant and central to the organization of this march. From what I could tell, internally, it was an ongoing teachable moment for everyone involved. There were certainly criticisms of the march and its organization around this subject, both externally and internally. Some took issue with the fact that the group of original organizers was almost all white. There was also discordance over the original name for this march — the Million Women March, which was already the name of a black-women-centered march that happened in Philly in 1997 (which followed the black-man-centered Million Man March in D.C. of 1995). In the doc, National Co-chair Tamika Mallory expresses concerns that history would record this march as “another white women march,” where black women felt neither represented by the issues raised, nor welcome in the space. The important thing is that that those difficult conversations were happening, openly and unapologetically, within the organization itself and out in the public.
NGP: Was there any footage left on the cutting room floor that you wished could have made it into the film?
CG: Yes! We focused a lot more on the build up of planning than the actual event itself. That was, in part, dictated by our deadline and quick turnaround that had to happen post-march. And it was also a conscious decision to not rehash the news that everyone else was already reporting around the actual day of the march. But on the day of the march, before the rally program kicked off, there was a moment when National Co-chair Tamika Mallory just welled up and started overflowing with tears as soon as she saw the massive crowd marching down the street towards her from backstage. It was a moment that really showed just how much hard work, sacrifice and emotion went into pulling this thing off. It was an overwhelming recognition that it had all paid off.
NGP: This came out just a week after the march — an incredible turnaround, especially for a film of this length. What’s one of the the biggest challenges you faced while meeting this deadline?
CG: This film actually came out less than 48 hours after the march. The march happened all day Saturday, January 21, and we published the piece around 5AM the following Monday, January 23. The biggest challenge was being disciplined enough to cut ourselves off in order to meet our deadline — even though we wanted to keep working with the material, despite our sleep deprivation.
NGP: Once the march reached the size of protestors not being able to march at all, what was the game plan to cover it? Were there any tough last-minute decisions you had to make?
CG: The march did happen. The crowd was larger than the organizers anticipated, and it was a staggered march — people towards the back of the crowd started moving before the rest, as the rally program was still carrying on onstage — but there was definitely lots of marching!
NGP: Did you have any personal reasons why you wanted to cover this? How has being involved affected you?
CG: There is a very real fear that many have about the fate of their human and civil rights in the hands of this new administration. That fear, and the resistance to the rhetoric and ideology and policy of those in power, is important to document. I’m also very interested in telling stories that let processes and events unfold over time, so I was drawn to telling the backstory of the news event everyone would eventually be covering. It’s always interesting to be a witness from behind a camera. You’re there for these big moments — whether in American history, or in the microcosm of an individual’s life story — but you are simultaneously always somewhat removed from the moment at hand.
NGP: Now that the march is over, and the film is complete and out in the world, a big question that seems to be on many people’s minds is “what’s next?” You were backstage, so to speak, before the big show. Did the organizers allude to any larger-scale plans for the farther-out future? What do you think is next?
CG: From the very first time I met the organizers, they were all clear that the march was not an end in itself. For those who have been in the world of activism and movement building their entire careers, it was, as National Co-chair Linda Sarsour put it, “another climactic point of a larger trajectory of moving and organizing.” About a week after the march, she became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against President Trump and his executive order on immigration and refugee admissions into the U.S.
At the march, I saw a woman holding a sign that read, “This is not a moment, it’s a movement.” And early on during the organizing, National Co-chairs Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Bob Bland all expressed that January 22, the day after the march, was when the real work would begin. Following the march, the official website was immediately converted into a platform promoting actions to take post-march in the first 100 days of the Trump administration, to turn the momentum and engagement of the march into further political and organizing power.
The march newsletter has been disseminating information about how to get involved with organizations working in specific issue areas, and they’ve just announced a general strike for a TBD date. I think these women have clearly demonstrated their ability to organize the masses, what they do next with the momentum they’ve built, we will continue to see as these next weeks and months unfold.
Credits: Greg Chen, Cullen Daly, Contessa Gayles, Channon Hodge, Amy Marino, Bridget Nolan, Alice X. Yu. For more amazing short documentary content follow us on our Facebook page here.