Nick Libbey and Zach Tomasovic drove from Brooklyn, New York, to Sawyer County, Wisconsin — that’s where Hayward is, if your north of Highway 29 counties are jumbled — arriving a few weeks ahead of the 2020 presidential election. It was in the thick of the pre-vaccination COVID-19 outbreak.
The co-directors of the film Sawyer County, 2020, playing at the Wisconsin Film Fest as part of a “State of the State” slate of documentaries on April 9, had been looking for an area that was evenly divided, split down the middle politically, in which to work.
They wanted to get out of New York. “We felt like we were not getting enough of a cross-section of political opinion,” says Tomasovic.
Libbey, who’s from Minnesota and spent childhood summers near Hayward, suggested Sawyer County, which has a long history of being a bellwether in elections. It won out over Pennsylvania native Tomasovic’s original suggestion of Erie — though increasingly, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania seem to be close siblings in their electoral divisions.
“It was a last minute thing, and we were producing on the fly,” says Libbey. “We arrived in Sawyer County on Oct. 15, with no subjects. We went to local watering holes, grocery stores — we started at Republican Party headquarters — blindly introducing ourselves.”
They wanted to talk to a broad sampling of the population and also make sure that they featured enough persons on both sides of the election. Democrats were more forthcoming, they found, while Republicans were more careful, wanting to make sure that a couple of filmmakers from New York were going to give them a fair shake.
The team filmed on location through the end of Election Day, capturing reactions as returns came in, although not, as it turned out, the final results.
COVID influenced the look of the film in ways they hadn’t predicted. They interviewed people through windows, or in their cars. “I’d never shot from outside to inside before,” Tomasovic says, but “necessity was the mother of invention.”
Libbey and Tomasovic say they weren’t sure what they had until they started putting the film together in editing. “But I feel like we achieved what we wanted,” says Tomasovic.
Libbey says that he did leave the production of the film feeling “disheartened,” that the country “really does feel that divided. On paper, people want to come together. But in reality, no one wants to do that.” He says he came to better understand “how tricky this is going to be,” communicating together again as a nation. “People are not willing to change.”
Tomasovic feels like there are “no clean takeaways” from the film. “I think people want to leave feeling like they have ‘action items’ — like ‘Here are five things we can all do to make things better.’” But he doesn’t see that list materializing.
When the Jan. 6 uprising took place, they were shocked. “What we experienced in Sawyer County was kindness,” Libbey says. The crowd that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 was “not the America we saw in Sawyer County.”
“Our mission was to capture what was happening in a swing county,” Libbey says, reflecting on the importance of “first-hand communication and listening. I feel like we tried to understand [everyone] and hopefully that comes across.”