Just as the election season begins to rev up for the fall, a new documentary is giving an inside look at the time, money, effort, and vulnerability it takes to run for office and the unique challenges female candidates face. “Represent” follows three women running for local positions in rural, urban, and suburban parts of the country and documents their efforts to reshape politics in their communities. Available to the public for digital release this Friday, “Represent” spotlights Myya Jones, a young Black candidate who ran for mayor of Detroit, Michigan, in 2017 and for state representative in 2018; Julie Cho, an Korean American immigrant who ran for state representative in Illinois’ 18th district in 2018; and Bryn Bird, a white farmer who ran for township trustee in Granville, Ohio, in 2017. Both Jones and Bird ran as Democrats, while Cho ran on the Republican ticket. Bird is the only candidate who won her race.
The film shows the different ways each woman interacted with their communities on the trail. It reveals how they handled various forms of racism, sexism, and classism, and the ways each of the women approached their unique set of challenges during their campaigns. Cho and Bird faced similar, but different obstacles: Bird ran as a progressive in a conservative town, and Cho ran as a conservative in a progressive city. On the other hand, Jones—who ran for office when she was 22 and 23 years old—was forced to spend much of her time defending her qualifications to her community.
The film emphasizes the lack of representation by women and people from marginalized communities at all levels of government. It also captures the standards and expectations that are set for different subsets of candidates, regardless of political affiliation.
Director Hillary Bachelder
Unlike similar documentaries that have followed candidates on the campaign trail, “Represent” didn’t stop rolling once the election results were read. Filmmakers followed each candidate for one year after their campaigns ended, primarily focusing on Bird as she juggled family responsibilities after taking office and managing her farm, which took a financial hit once she went public with her bold political stances.
Perhaps most notably, the film gives a raw look at the strength, vulnerability, and resilience that comes with running for an elected position. It documents the hard-to-watch, in-person rejection each candidate faced, the superficial criticisms they experienced as female candidates, and the tear-jerking moments that came in the aftermath of winning and losing hard-fought races.
Hillary Bachelder, the film’s director, sat down to chat with me ahead of the film’s wide digital release. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
Carolyn Copeland: The film opens with black and white footage of news anchors from past decades talking about “the year of the woman.” Do you think that’s more true now than it was back then?
Hillary Bachelder: Yes and no. I think maybe the bar is a little higher today, but we’re still at really depressing statistical numbers. Women still make up only about a quarter of seats in Congress. We fare even worse with executive positions like mayor and governor. So there’s still a lot of work to be done, even as we see a lot of these really exciting historic firsts. By pulling together those clips in the intro, we wanted to remind people that this isn’t a problem that we get to tie up in a bow and dust our hands off and say, “Okay, we did it, we’re done.” There’s ongoing work.
The goal of the film was to show these incredible, passionate, thoughtful, and well-qualified women who are running [for office] and who we often see highlighted in the news. But the problem doesn’t get solved just by having more women run. There are still systemic barriers for those women to step forward in the first place and to be successful in their campaigns and be successful in office. [There are] different distinct sets of barriers. Part of that is biased media coverage and voter bias. When you dig into it, the film tries to look at both parties equally and hold both the Democrats and the Republicans fully accountable for not doing a better job of supporting women and historically underrepresented candidates. So we need to look at where the pipeline is really leaking. Part of that is financial support and the other part of that is party-level support. So there’s work to be done [when it comes to] encouraging women to run, there’s work to be done supporting their candidates’ views and ensuring that they get elected, and then there’s work to be done around both the culture and the support that they received once they’re actually an elected official.
Granville Township Trustee Bryn Bird
Copeland: As a filmmaker, but especially as a woman who I’m sure wants to see other women succeed and be perceived as capable, did you feel any pressure to make sure these three women were shown in a positive light?
Bachelder: That’s a really good question, and it’s something that I certainly felt personally responsible for. When you ask someone to take part in a documentary, you’re asking so much of them. You’re asking for their honesty, their time, and their vulnerability. And so I certainly didn’t want to betray their trust in me and end up ruining their careers or something. They had a lot to risk by really letting me in on the level that they did. So I was constantly weighing that responsibility [with] telling a fully honest story.
We don’t often get to see politicians as people. It sounds kind of funny to phrase it like that, but we just get handed brochures and [see] campaign ads. I think because of that, we have expectations for elected officials that is not as forgiving and doesn’t always reflect reality. We don’t expect them to be fully human. I think if politicians were able to bring their full selves into the public space, we would have a better functioning democracy. So part of the goal was also to paint a portrait in which we get to see them as full people and see the flaws and the learning curves. That’s important too when you’re encouraging other women to run. I think Myya, Bryn, and Julie are all deeply relatable because we see them working through issues around public speaking, we see them figuring out their messaging, [and] we see them juggling kids who are melting down in the back of the meeting. Those are all deeply personal and relatable moments that I think are important to portray.
Copeland: All of the women experienced adversity and had their own set of obstacles to overcome while campaigning, but it seemed to me that Myya had an especially difficult time convincing people she was capable and competent both because of her race and her young age. She said something in the film that I had to write down because it stuck out to me so much. She said, “A lot of times, people want the Black woman vote because we’re the backbone of the Democratic Party, yet they don’t support us when we run for office, they don’t give us funding, they don’t endorse us—they pick the candidate that’s less Black and less woman.” Did you find this to be true as you followed her throughout both of her campaigns?
Julie Cho, former candidate for state representative in Illinois
Bachelder: Yeah, I think she’s spot on with identifying that issue with the Democratic Party and Democratic leadership across the board. I think that we accept political candidates within a particular box, and if you’re a straight, white, cisgendered man running for office you have a bigger box that you get to take up. If you’re a woman running for office, the box that you can exist in shrinks. And if you’re a Black woman, or if you’re a young Black woman, it gets smaller and smaller.
Copeland: I teared up a couple of times while watching this film, and that’s not something I was expecting. I first teared up at the scene when Bryn calls her mom to tell her she won, then I teared up again when it showed Myya and Julie losing their elections. You did such a great job of showing how hard each of these women worked, so those scenes were really emotional and impactful for different reasons. Was there any moment that was particularly emotional for you while you were filming?
Bachelder: There were four elections throughout the course of filming and I 100% cried at the end of each. Part of it was pure exhaustion [from] shooting the weeks leading up to Election Day, but really, there were so many moments that I was so invested in. I wanted all of them to win, and I wanted—and still want—things to work out for them in politics.
But beyond that—as you mentioned with the call between Bryn and her mom—you know all the stuff that goes into their relationship. We also get to learn more about Myya and her backstory and how she’s struggling to take control of her own narrative and what that means for her. And Julie’s fighting this ideological battle of getting to be independent of people’s political expectations of her. I was just so invested in all of those pieces. I was an emotional wreck, many, many times.
Copeland: If people only take one thing away from this film, what do you hope it is?
Bachelder: I hope people see this as a call to action for themselves. Personally, I hoped that we’ve shown three women who look, sound, and feel like us when people watch the film. [I hope] they see that democracy only works when we make it work. It doesn’t mean every one of us should run for office, but we can all be volunteering for the candidates that we’re excited about, we can be donating, we can be working the polls on Election Day. There are so many ways that we plug into the office and this film was a chance to celebrate the important work that happens at the local level. I hope that what people connect to and take away from is that there’s work to do around democracy [and] there’s work to do around representation. We’re the ones who need to be doing that work.