The Candidates: The release of the THHS election simulation documentary

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The Candidates, a documentary about the annual Townsend Harris High School election simulation, premiered on November 10th at the IFC Center in Manhattan.

The election simulation is a THHS tradition that has been taking place for over two decades, wherein seniors take part in a mock election and represent candidates running in state and national level elections.

The 2016 presidential election was one of the most controversial races in American history— and the drama was emulated in the election simulation for that year. Filmmakers Lexi Henigman and alumnus Alexandra Stergiou (‘06) were present throughout the process to capture the triumphs and pains of the political system through the mock campaigns.

Alexandra  remarked that the purpose of the production was “to show other people a paradigm of civil education, which is happening at THHS.” As an alumna who took part in the election simulation herself, Alexandra hoped to show the power of teenagers actively learning and exploring their political beliefs and to reveal a different perspective to the last presidential election.

The struggle of taking on the roles of such prominent political figures was experienced by Misbah Pochi (‘17) who played Hillary Clinton, as well as Daniel Khaldarov (‘17) who played the role of Donald Trump. Alexandra’s and Lexi’s decision to focus on Misbah and Daniel stemmed from the fact that they are both from immigrant families, which provided fresh narratives about the political system and served as an accurate representation of the THHS student body and Queens, showcasing the complexity of the election simulation.

In an interview with Filmmaker, Alexandra explained that Misbah and Daniel were forced to “grapple with [their] real-world counterparts who were the frontrunners of a dramatic and challenging election.”

One of the film’s central narratives was the difficulty that the students and faculty experienced  when trying to adhere to the reality of the elections— one filled with “pussy tapes” in Daniel’s case and with a colossal email scandal for Misbah.

Over the course of the campaign, Misbah described the difficulty of accurately communicating Clinton’s stances while learning to grapple with and manage the criticism that she received in response to those views. She stated, “There are times in the movie [when] I get really upset or passionate about what I’m saying because I feel like they’re attacking me, but they’re not, they’re attacking Hillary.”

Ultimately,  Jill Stein, a third party candidate, was named  the winner of the THHS presidential race in the 2016 election simulation. Raya Kazadan (‘17) who took on the role of Stein, wanted to introduce students to the ideas of a third party candidate, as they are often disregarded in favor of bigger parties. She stated, “At the end of the day, grassroots politics and issues that we all care about are what actually make our country what it is.” Political activism continues to be an important aspect of Raya’s college experience, and she attributes her growth as an active political participant to her experiences as an election simulation candidate.

Assistant Principal of Humanities Rafal Olechowski reflected on the experience of seeing himself in the film; “It’s really weird because we have this persona of ourselves, but the eye doesn’t see itself. You need a mirror, a film or an actual mirror to actually face yourself.”

Misbah revealed that watching the film brought back waves of nostalgia and stated that “It reminded me of how much I enjoyed politics, and reminds [me] that I want to go back and be more active in it.”

Former THHS history teacher Alex Wood, who oversaw and guided the students in their campaigns, praised the film for its ability to realistically capture the emotions, events, and difficulties that were encountered throughout the simulation. He described the film as “a 90 minute long narrative with really strong characters, drama and just a sense of fatigue that happens sometimes with this election simulation, which mirrors the grind of a real election.”