TIME politics

‘Unforgiven’: How This Man in Florida Lost His Voting Rights

For Roderick Kemp in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the 2008 presidential election was the starting point of a fight he continues to this day

Unforgiven, filmed by Adeel Ahmed, Ashwin Gandbhir and Alexandra Clinton of Surya Productions in collaboration with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, profiles Roderick Kemp, a Florida real estate agent who was convicted of a felony in the 1980s, and realized much later he had lost his right to vote. Now, he has made fighting disenfranchisement his cause. Co-directors Adeel Ahmed, Ashwin Gandbhir and Producer Alexandra Clinton spoke to TIME about Kemp’s story and what he hopes the film will accomplish.

Given all of the story lines in this particular election cycle, what drew you to this story?

From the beginning, we wanted to tell a story that shed light on the challenges the formerly incarcerated face. In doing our research, we met Rod, whose story was relevant to the election because it highlighted voter disenfranchisement, and was also unique, due to the fact that he served his sentence over 30 years ago and only recently had his voting rights revoked. Rod’s story, to us, has a humanity that goes beyond politics. During this election, we’ve seen other issues polarize Republicans and Democrats. For example, there’s been talk of a “rigged” system. This story can relate to some of those concerns, but approaches it from a different angle.

As filmmakers, what was the most challenging part of the production?

Finding balance with our storytelling was the biggest challenge because of the topic and the fact that we are telling a story that happened in the past. We often found ourselves asking, How do we keep an audience engaged if there’s no real-time action? Our goal of creating a film with a personal, cinematic aesthetic had to play well with the politically charged, information-heavy issue of voter disenfranchisement. We didn’t want to get stuck in a straightforward, newsy style of storytelling, but we also didn’t want to be so esoteric and detailed and miss the larger point. Finding the right balance took a bit of work in the edit. We shot over 12 hours of footage.

From your perspective, how does what happened to Mr. Kemp relate to the broader discussion of voting rights in the United States?

Rod’s situation speaks more broadly to the misinformation and confusion surrounding the voting process. All voters face different obstacles in exercising their right to vote—voter ID laws, aging voting technology, long lines at the polls or time off from work to travel to a polling place. Also, Rod’s story speaks to the need for support for returning citizens during the re-entry phase and a straightforward clemency process.

What was your creative and storytelling approach with this particular story?

First, we were mindful of our medium—a documentary short for the web, where often the viewer’s attention span is tested. While creatively we wanted the narrative to play out with a bit of suspense and intrigue, we knew we didn’t have the luxury of losing the viewer for even a moment.

What is your ultimate goal with producing a documentary like this?

Our goal is to present a poignant story that sheds light on an under-reported issue that affects many Americans, particularly people of color. The hope is that the film brings relevance and deeper knowledge to an issue that some may know about. What has been missing from the conversation was a deep look at the personal struggle of an individual going through it.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.

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