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A new kind of campaign volunteer

by Amy Kingsley

Frank Eaton believes in his candidate. His belief is so strong, in fact, that it carries him off the edge of his chair and into the airspace over a sun-soaked thatch of grass.

He catches himself before he goes over and shifts back into his seat.

“With all the talk we’re hearing about global warming,” Eaton says, “this is his moment. It’s now if ever there was one.”

Speaking of climate change, this is the first warm, cloudless day Winston-Salem’s seen in weeks. So Eaton is taking advantage of it, squinting into the sun from the yard behind Krankie’s, the only green in this industrial sector.

His man is Dan Besse, a Winston-Salem city councilman and candidate for lieutenant governor. When Eaton gets to talking about Besse, his demeanor shifts into high gear – zeal lights up his face and sends his hands into motion.

Eaton and Besse met through a mutual acquaintance who happens to be Besse’s campaign manager, Christine Toole. Her husband approached Eaton, a documentary filmmaker, with a proposal.

“He said, ‘Do you want to get involved in the hardest thing you’ve ever worked on?'” Eaton says.

You see Eaton isn’t your average campaign volunteer. He doesn’t staff phone banks or register voters. Instead he uses his video skills to craft a series of internet shorts about his man.

“I have a face made for radio,” Besse says, “so if he can take pictures of me and make them look good, he’s a wizard.”

And they do look good, particularly the spot entitled “Running on his Record.” The piece shows Dan Besse, a seasoned marathoner, running the streets of Winston-Salem while text of his political and athletic achievements flashes on the screen. A percussive soundtrack stitches it together.

“Frank had me running around the streets for about two hours,” Besse says. “I got a good workout that day.”

The campaign posted it to Youtube.com, a free venue amenable to cash-strapped campaigns like Besse’s. His had raised less than $200,000 in campaign donations as of Dec. 31, 2007, putting him a distant third behind state Sen. Walter Dalton and attorney Hampton Dellinger.

So far the campaign has posted 11 of these video vignettes, which cover subjects like the Sierra Club’s endorsement of Besse and his early opposition to CWIP, a utility funding mechanism that allows companies to shift the financial burden of new construction onto ratepayers. Besse wrote the narration and Eaton illustrated and edited.

“That ad started with this image of four cooling towers shrinking down to one,” Eaton says.

Eaton enrolled in the NCa School of the Arts with the intention of focusing on screenwriting, but he found the curriculum too confining and dropped out.

“That was when digital technology started democratizing the industry,” he says. “I got out of film school right at the moment when you didn’t need to go to film school anymore.”

In 2003 he started teaching video at the Winston-Salem Youth Arts Institute, where he worked with kids from public housing and helped them make short films. Two years later he got his first freelance job, making mediation videos for lawyers involved in civil litigation.

“The videos allow families to have a voice in a situation that is usually just for lawyers,” Eaton says.

But just as he began embarking on that career, another opportunity materialized, a chance to go to Haiti to film a documentary. After he’d been in the country three weeks, he hooked up with some musicians and undertook a two-day music video shoot. He and his collaborator were celebrating after the first day of shooting when three armed men emerged from the shadows and forced them into the back of a car.

They held them hostage for three days, demanding ransom money and threatening to kill them. They didn’t, and he returned to the States safely. But the experience changed him.

“That experience made me the political activist I am today,” Eaton says. “I realized that, one, I care a lot about North Carolina. And two, with Haiti being a worse-case scenario, legislation, leadership, good laws and having the right people in charge can really make the difference between total chaos and being the state I think we could be.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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