“You’ve Been Trumped” is a compelling documentary about Donald Trump’s newest golf course, built on a previously unspoiled stretch of coastal dunes in Aberdeenshire that has been described as Scotland’s equivalent to the Amazon rain forest.
Focusing on the environmental impact of the project on the once-protected coastline and its effects on the quality of life of nearby residents, the film also offers candid glimpses of Trump in ugly American mode: making grandiose claims about his luxury golf resort in the birthplace of golf, invoking the ghost of his Scottish mother for publicity purposes while trying to bully local residents out of their modest homes. The doc has won 8 awards at film festivals in the U.S. and U.K. and opens for a brief run in New York on August 3, then for another in L.A. starting August 17.
Filmmaker Anthony Baxter is a mild-mannered Scottish answer to Michael Moore. A broadcast journalist who had produced a BBC documentary about man made erosion in his home town of Montrose, some 40 miles away from the dunes, he was interested in the environmental story behind Trump International Golf Links (which opened in July), one that he said was all but missing from accounts in the local Aberdeen papers.
“If you pick up a copy of those newspapers from the last five years, they read like PR free sheets for Donald Trump,” Baxter says. “It’s extraordinary, the way they have just told one side of the story and have failed in any way to investigate the impact on the people living in the path of this development or to report the environmental impact.”
So Baxter went looking for the rest of the story. Trump refused his interview requests; Scottish politicians and police held their tongues. But Baxter had no trouble gaining access to scientists, economists and residents, the kinds of weathered salt of the earth locals with decades-long ties to the area who will invite a stranger in for tea and a chat and make for instantly sympathetic characters.
“I was amazed to find these incredibly warm ordinary people who were genuinely concerned about their environment,” Baxter says. “I just started filming. This was unfolding on my doorstep and I felt a sense of duty to document what was happening.”
He spent 18 months reporting, trying and failing to secure support from British broadcasters, raising $40,000 on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo and mortgaging his house to cover costs.
“When I first pitched the film at the Edinburgh Festival, there was this TV executive there from the States and he said ‘Well I hope you’ve got a good lawyer if you’re gonna do this story,’” Baxter says. “There’s a general feeling amongst some of the commissioning editors and distributors as well that if you take on Trump, you’re going to have the lawyers after you so you shouldn’t touch it.”
Trump only deigned to speak at Baxter during press conferences. In one scene, Trump insinuates that the journalist is not a “real journalist.” After the film came out, Baxter says: “He challenged me at a news conference saying that the film was ‘a failure’ and he’d heard it was boring.” (New York Magazine, for one, called it “riveting.” Reviews have been uniformly excellent.)
“He’s not going to answer the important questions in any case, he doesn’t seem to want to engage with those questions,” Mr. Baxter says. “As a documentarian you’ve just got to follow what you’re following and approach those people and hope they will participate in the film. And if they don’t you still have to try to do your best to tell the story without their help. Even though Donald Trump didn’t participate in the film, he actually has more screen time than anybody else.”
If Baxter doesn’t exactly paint a flattering portrait of Trump, assuming such a thing is even possible, suffice it to say that the Donald doesn’t do himself any favors, brashly declaring that the farmer whose perfectly normal Scottish rural house he wants to tear down lives like a “pig” in “slum-like conditions.” Claiming that he’s making the coastline more beautiful to the delight of environmentalists when Baxter does a tidy job of demonstrating their opposition to the project. And in one probably gratuitous but nevertheless revealing scene that comes off as surreal parody, Trump — who seems constantly flanked by kilt-wearing bagpipers–stops the cameras to fret about his infamous coif.
But some of the most disturbing moments in the film show local residents holding their ground while their electricity and water supplies are cut off, giant mounds of bulldozed dirt are piled outside their windows to block their ocean views, fences go up without their permission and private security vehicles begin stopping and surveying them on their own land.
“The Trump organization called the local residents in the film a national embarrassment to Scotland,” Baxter says. “I think that they’re inspirational and that everyone who has seen the film feels they are in fact a fantastic advertisement to what Scotland is all about–people caring about their heritage and their environment and the lives of their neighbors. And when you see how Trump is behaving to his neighbors, it’s extraordinary to pick disputes with them by putting up thousands of tons of earth next to their houses and bickering about a couple of inches of property line when he owns hundreds of acres, but that’s not enough for him.”
About a year into filming, Scottish police arrested Baxter and his producer Richard Phinney while they had their cameras rolling (no charges were pressed and the police eventually apologized for the incident).
“It was never my intention to be in the film,” Baxter says. “But it was a kind of turning point really.” Baxter points out that he and his producer have made films in Afghanistan and other far flung areas for Britain’s Channel 4 and the BBC. “Broadcasters don’t like you to go to those places unless you’ve taken a hostile environments course,” he says. “It shows you how to behave if you’re arrested or thrown into prison cells or what have you. I was expecting that training to be tested one day maybe in Afghanistan or in Africa. I never thought it would be in rural Scotland, where I’m being hustled off to the local police station and being thrown into a prison cell and having fingerprints and DNA and all the rest of it taken. It seemed such a bizarre series of events.”
Baxter doesn’t narrate the story, letting his subjects speak for themselves; and he appears sparingly on camera. But he is relentless.
Trump claims that his project will bring 6,000 jobs to Scotland, and Baxter finds an economist to point out that the area has a mere 1.8 percent unemployment rate. “He’ll say ‘I spent 100 million pounds of my own money on this thing,’” Baxter says. “And that is just nonsense according to the figures which show he has spent actually a fraction of that.”
Baxter says that Trump’s claim that he has made a 750,000 pound to 1 billion pound investment in the local community is based on a purported plan for a resort with 1,500 houses, two golf courses and a luxury hotel has been stalled for one reason or another — the economic downturn, or Trump’s distaste for planned offshore windmills–though he owns the rights to the once protected land and could sell it off at a profit. “What’s happened is he’s opened one golf course, a flimsy temporary clubhouse and that’s all,” Baxter says, “but we’ve basically lost the crown jewels of Scotland’s natural heritage.”
“Besides,” he continues, “it isn’t an economy on its knees in need of being saved by Donald Trump. I think the local journalists have been swept up by the celebrity and bringing these claims to a community which just seemed oblivious to the reality of just how serious this was environmentally. Donald Trump’s approach to PR is that if you say things enough times, people will believe them and print them as fact.”
It takes determination and nerve to make a documentary about somebody who won’t talk to you. Did Baxter ever feel like giving up?
“Yeah I did, lots of times,” Baxter says. “But I kept coming back to the fact that this was something I had to get to the end of. And I still haven’t got to the end of it. I mean making the film is one thing but it’s been an utter battle getting the film out to an audience.”
Nevertheless, Baxter says that he’s been struck by the collective nerve the film has struck amongst audiences from Scotland to New York to Croatia.
“I think it comes as a big shock to people in Scotland and elsewhere in the world, the way that ordinary people in the footprint of this thing have been treated by the Trump organization,” Baxter says. “It’s very powerful when you have a cinema full of people who feel maddened by it, shouting at the screen. But it’s hard to know what to do with that anger. I’ve spent a lot of time doing question and answer sessions at film festivals and at screenings where people have told us, we’ve got our own situation like this, we’ve been Trumped too. People feel helpless up against this power and seeming situation where you have the politicians and the police and authorities all working together with somebody who is incredibly wealthy and is used to getting his own way, Trump being the ultimate one percenter able to ride roughshod over ordinary people’s lives and the planet.”
Baxter says that the local residents have refused to decamp. “But their lives have been made hell,” he adds. “There’s a real difference here, I think, between right and wrong. I think that the local people saw early on that this was wrong for the environment and for our planet and we just can’t afford too many of these mistakes again. I think after seeing the film people are saying ‘never again.’”