southampton politics, southampton council, craig catalanotto

Story - News

Nov 3, 2008 9:36 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Obama's message resonates for women here

Nov 3, 2008 9:36 AM

Wainscott resident Cora Weiss, who ran a small non-profit organization called the African-American Students Foundation from 1959 to 1963, could easily claim some responsibility for the arc of President-Elect Barack Obama’s life.

After all, if it weren’t for her, a young Kenyan student who would one day become the president-elect’s father would never have come to the United States.

But when Ms. Weiss walked into a filmmaking couple’s home studio on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton on Sunday afternoon to sit for a short interview on what the campaign meant to her, she was just one of hundreds of East End women who shared powerful stories of the way Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign changed their lives. The interviews are being gathered for a feature-length documentary designed to serve as a time capsule of the campaign.

Phillipe Cheng and Bastienne Schmidt, a husband-and-wife photographic team, began the documentary project after a dinner table conversation with activist Kathy Engel and one of the Hamptons Film Festival’s founders, Toni Ross, in early September.

At that time, Senator John McCain had just picked Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. Many women who still felt wounded by former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s loss in the Democratic primaries were beginning to embrace Mr. Obama after feeling insulted by what they thought was a pandering vice presidential pick by his opponent.

“That was the boiling-over point,” said Ms. Schmidt. “Nobody should speak for us. Women felt we were being made fun of.”

The group decided to shoot a short film of what they were hoping would be at least 50 people in a farm field owned by Tinka Topping in Sagaponack. The film would be a simple view of women holding hands and expressing their support for Mr. Obama. They sent out e-mails to friends asking them to join the event, but were overwhelmed when more than 450 women descended on the Daniels Lane farm field for the event.

“It would be a simple statement to acknowledge them,” said Ms. Schmidt. “A lot of times women are the bearers of society, and they’re not acknowledged in that respect.”

That three-minute video has now been shown nearly 2,000 times on YouTube. The filmmakers also entered it in the Hamptons Film Festival, though it could not receive consideration for awards because no one had been able to collect releases from all of the participants.

With one success in hand, Ms. Schmidt and Mr. Cheng are now planning a far more ambitious project—conducting in-depth interviews with women here who have been touched by the campaign. So far, they’ve interviewed 160 people. Mr. Cheng envisions the film being much like the celebrated “StoryCorps” project on National Public Radio, which collects stories from ordinary people.

Ms. Weiss may be unique among those interviewed in that she knows the senator well.

“When Obama looks at you, he’s looking at you, not to see if the king is over your shoulder,” she said, a tear in the corner of her eye as the cameras rolled Sunday afternoon. “After 74 years of living, I’m crying ‘tears of possibility,’” she said. “I’ve never used the word ‘miracle’ before in my life. I don’t believe in miracles. But it’s a miracle, isn’t it?

“His father was brilliant and fun,” she added, extending her commendations to Mr. Obama’s grandparents and his mother, who was an anthropologist. “I think this guy comes with terrific DNA. “He’s caring, warm and brilliant. I can’t imagine a world without him.”

Ms. Weiss recalled the first time she met Senator Obama, whom she had visited in order to give him some mail from his father.

“He said, ‘If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be here,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘No, it would be someone else’”—another person who would have helped his father to immigrate.

Ms. Weiss wasn’t the only participant to bring tears to the eyes of the filmmakers. Brenda Simmons, who is African-American, had barely sat down for her interview Sunday afternoon when she burst into the song “I Love You Lord,” which she described as a song her ancestors sang in the fields “to keep their spirits up.”

When she finished singing, she choked up and walked over to a window, her shoulders shuddering as Ms. Engel, also teary-eyed, held and comforted her.

“I started reflecting on my ancestors and how exciting it would be for them to be here. I almost pictured myself there and connected with them,” said Ms. Simmons.

She said that she has also seen the election as a transformational moment in race relations in the country. She had recently returned from Georgia, where she’d been frightened when a white man driving a pickup truck slowed down when she walked past him on the street. She said that so many fears built out of generations of uneasy relationships vanished in one gesture.

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What a glorious day for all people of hope!
By hamptonjoe (2), southampton on Nov 5, 08 8:02 PM