Politically speaking, 2020 has been an intense year, though perhaps it’s not entirely an anomaly.
“Freak Power: The Ballot or the Bomb,” a documentary directed by Saratoga native Ajax Phillips and Daniel Joseph Watkins, draws similarities between this era and the late 1960s/early 1970s. It highlights author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s campaign for sheriff in Pitkin County, Colorado, a lesser-known aspect of Thompson’s life and career.
Phillips, an artist and photojournalist, moved to Aspen in 2012, after graduating from Skidmore College and working in Eastern Sudan on a project surrounding climate change through a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant.
While much of her current work focuses on sculpture, several years ago she helped edit a book by Watkins called “Freak Power,” which followed Thompson’s campaign. After it was published, they found footage from the campaign that hadn’t even been developed. They quickly realized that they had another unique way to explore Thompson’s history in the area and they worked to build on that. They conducted interviews with people who were involved in the campaign and they secured more footage from that era.
The film, which was released in late October, blends photographs and footage from the time and modern-day interviews. Last week, Phillips spoke with The Gazette about the documentary.
Q: Do you think that most people are not aware that Thompson ran for sheriff in Aspen?
A: Definitely. The whole reason we wrote the book is DJ had been working on another project related to the artist and activist Tom Benton. He kept coming across all this stuff from when Hunter had run for sheriff, including all this amazing writing of Hunter’s that nobody even knew existed. [In his writing] he’s super organized and he’s thinking in these big systemic ways about how do we change the system? How do we reform law enforcement? How do we bring people back into the government who feel like they don’t want to participate anymore? It was all overshadowed by “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which came out the next year.
At the time Hunter ran, NBC actually came here and did a spot on Hunter running. There were 56 nationwide articles on Hunter running for sheriff while he was running, including in the New York Times, The Washington Post and the LA Times. It was a big deal at the time but then everybody just forgot about it. He talks about it a lot in later years in his books, but original source material from the campaign had been lost over time. That was our job. [Watkins] is an incredible historian and he was really good at tracking down these materials and figuring out where things have ended up. He was able to bring back all this material, including all this paper material, which it was amazing that it had even survived for 50 years.
Q: You started working on this back in 2017?
A: Yeah, in the beginning, we were trying to figure out, “what direction are we going with this?” Hunter is a pretty well-known figure so there was a lot of interest in it. The footage shows Hunter confident [and] cogent. He’s pretty serious most of the time. We don’t have a lot of Hunter totally out of control like the Johnny Depp persona later in his life.
We felt like we had to lean into the historic footage we had and portray this in a reasonable, realistic way. The film industry has a tendency to want to make Hunter into this caricature of himself. It’s that Doonesbury Uncle Duke, totally out of control, drug-addled Hunter. That was really more persona than anything else; Hunter was pretty serious when he ran this campaign and he was profoundly interested in American politics and the idea of the American dream and trying to make democracy work. That was our main intent was to find other people to work with who also understood and wanted to honor this part of Hunter rather than leaning into the sort of “Fear and Loathing” Hunter.
Q: How did you get so many interviews with people who were involved in the campaign?
A: There were some people who we knew personally who had been involved in the campaign, like the former sheriff Bob Braudis. He was the sheriff here for 24 years and he was really good friends with Hunter so we knew him before making the film. Joe Edwards, the lawyer who had run for mayor of Aspen the year before Hunter ran for sheriff, and Hunter had been his campaign manager, we knew him. Then the big one was Alex Sweetman, who’s the young guy with the curly hair in the film who’s always really jazzed about everything. I was obsessed with finding Alex because we had such good footage of [him]. I knew Alex was a professor of photography at CU Boulder but for whatever reason, we kept just not getting a hold of him. Finally, one day I was on Instagram just scrolling and I saw somebody I know who’s a photographer say “Oh, we got Alex Sweetman in the house today” and it was at Anderson Ranch Arts Center. So I got in my car and basically started stalking Alex around Aspen. Finally, my friend who had posted the photo managed to track him down and he came down to our studio.
I think one of the most surreal things about making this project was that you see these people [on film] and they’re young and you see them and it’s 50 years later and the passage of time is such a profound thing. Also, hearing these people’s voices when they’re young versus when they’re old and thinking about how we see the world change is a really powerful thing.
Q: Do you feel like you know a different side of Thompson now?
A: Definitely. First of all, it’s one thing to read about something and it’s another thing to watch somebody in the moment talking about it, see the person in time. Because we’d written the book, we knew a lot of the events that had happened, abstractly. We didn’t realize the extent to which the FBI was after Hunter. We knew that the sheriff had tried to bring in an agent provocateur to incite violence, but we didn’t realize the degree that the feds had been involved until after the fact. We didn’t realize that they were trying to connect Hunter with the Weatherman, which was the major left-wing terror organization at the time that was blowing things up all over the country. I mean they were trying to say that Hunter was part of the Weatherman and that this was this radical militant movement, which was not true. It’s just fascinating to see how that played out and the way that the FBI was going after people trying to bring about social change in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s.
Q: What do you think he would think of our political environment today?
A: His message remains true. His whole idea was that if you build a political movement, if you get people to engage in politics, if you make it exciting, if you make it sexy, you can bring people back into the system and we can make democracy work. It’s way better to make democracy work than to have a civil war. That was his whole point 50 years ago; that’s why it’s called “The Ballot or the Bomb,” is because we’ve got to make this work. We gotta make this work now and we had to make it work then because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. That I think would be Hunter’s main thing. He was an idealist but he was also very pragmatic about politics. He totally understood that it was a chess move and not a love letter.
Q: What do you hope people get out of the film?
A: One of our main goals with the film was to highlight the similarities between 1970 and today. To me, those are both reassuring and disturbing because it’s like we’ve been here before at this moment of democratic existential crisis. There were over 4,000 bombings in the United States in 1970. It was an incredibly unstable time and when you hear all these people in the film talking about revolution and whether or not there’s going to be one because they really thought there might be a revolution. I think to be back in a moment again that feels so polarized . . . to me it just shows that we got through this before that maybe we can get through it again.
Also, these issues are just perennial in the United States. It almost feels like there was this big push in the ‘60s for social reform and early ‘70s and it was like the pause button got pressed and 50 years later Hunter sounds like he’s running for sheriff in 2020 instead of 1970. That to me is incredibly disturbing; that what he’s saying doesn’t sound passe that it sounds like right now means that something has gone amiss in terms of social progress in this country.
Ultimately, what we hope people get out of the film is that if you’re frustrated with democracy and if you’re frustrated with the political system in this country the way to affect long term change is to get involved in politics even if you don’t feel like you’re ready to be involved.
“Freak Power: The Ballot or Bomb” is available to purchase via Vimeo, Google Play, iTunes and Amazon. For more information visit freakpower.com.