A new documentary is getting to the heart of America's crisis of values
With a new wave of grassroots DIY activism on the rise, it can be tough to keep track of the efforts that are making the biggest impact in the wake of the election. We're highlighting the latest movements, projects, leaders, and ideas going beyond party politics to bring our country together and solve America's biggest problems.
While the national conversation continues to spiral out of control and a record high of Americans report feeling more divided than ever, one unexpected team of independent filmmakers have set about the country to actually get to the bottom of it all.
Since the election, Director James Kicklighter, creator Guy Seemann, and Liran Kapoano (founder of GOPWithHer.com) have gone deep into the heart of Trump country to talk to everyday Americans about the struggles and experiences that informed their decisions on November 8th. Together they've captured over 120 hours of footage from people across Rust Belt—and they're finally beginning to tease out the common ground and shared values between Americans that they hope can be a baseline for further discussion and change.
Dubbed "The American Question," the project is a massive undertaking that is as unique as it is critically important. After all, countries can only function when they have a shared set of values and today those values are being reexamined nationwide. The trio recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to help complete an early cut of the film. With only 3 days left and just under $2,000 left to raise, we sat down with the filmmakers to discuss what they've learned on the road so far.
Q: What compelled you to pack up your things and set out across the country to talk to people after the election?
James Kicklighter (JK): I did work as a filmmaker for Hillary Clinton, and walking away from that experience I voiced numerous times my concerns that we weren’t speaking to people in places like where I grew up. It wasn’t just instinct, it was first hand knowledge. Many of my family members and friends voted for Donald Trump, and I understood why. On the other hand, my friends in Los Angeles, on the coasts, and in major cities couldn’t fathom the reasoning.
My friends and family are good people, not "deplorables." Their life experiences, from economic to social shifts, informed their decisions in ways that have highlighted to me the great divide within America. Growing up in one of the poorest regions of America, where the vast majority of my classmates were Title I students, it was damn near impossible to have any sort of economic mobility. These globalized shifts have ravaged many parts of America and are shifting American values in ways that were previously unimaginable.
Very few directors can actually claim they understand what it is like to live in these places or know these people, because they’ve had no exposure. I feel a personal obligation to tell this story and bridge the gap between these two Americas.
Guy Seemann (GS): I flew back from Israel to work as a regional director on Hillary’s campaign. When I got here, I did not recognize the Democratic Party or the country I grew up in. Instead of focusing on the issues, people were at each other’s throats calling each other un-American. It was a strange thing to see and a big departure from other campaigns I've been involved in.
Living abroad, I know how important American ideals are to so many countries, especially developing nations. If Americans end up abandoning those ideals, it will affect the entire country and the world. So, I came up with the theory and decided to take matters into my own hands. I am not a filmmaker per se, but I know this story has to be told to start a national conversation.
Q: Liran, you're a #NeverTrump Republican and the founder of GOPWithHer.com. How did that project come about, and how did it lead you to getting involved with The American Question?
Liran Kapoano: GOPWithHer.com started out, innocently enough, during the Republican debates, when my wife (a Democrat) asked me if I would vote for Hillary Clinton if Trump was the nominee. In my naïveté (thinking that could never happen), I said that not only would I vote for her, but I would campaign for her. Well...
I created the website as something of a joke or a way to express the utter despair I felt for the future of our country. Through that, I came to find that there were many others like me and it turned from being something I just felt I had to do because I’m a man of my word into something I became very passionate about. I connected with Republican Women for Hillary—specifically Jennifer Pierotti Lim—and we worked together on a few initiatives, including a montage of self-made videos from Republicans explaining why they would vote for Hillary after years of vowing to oppose her.
The weekend before the election, we went to counties across battleground states to get out the vote for Clinton. Had you asked me even three months earlier if I would ever knock on people’s doors in Philadelphia and ask them to vote for Hillary Clinton (or any Democrat really) I would have said you were nuts.
Ultimately, despite our losing effort, there were a lot of positive experiences that came of the campaign. One of which is my connection to The American Question. After weeks of soul-searching about just what kind of country I live in, Jennifer connected me with Guy who just so happened to be spearheading a project that that was (amongst other things) designed to answer that very question. After meeting with Guy and James I felt a lot of synergy despite (or maybe because of?) our different political viewpoints and was excited to participate.
Q: You guys have captured over 120 hours of interviews with people from Detroit to the Rust Belt. What made you focus on these areas, and what have been your biggest insights so far from talking to folks?
JK: The most surprising element to me has been the commonality of values across all segments of society. It’s easy for us to put people in boxes, and divisive politics has a lot to do with that. Because many of us are viewing everything in national discussion through a political lens, it has become quite difficult to cut below that and understand the real issues facing our country.
Though varied political beliefs may offer different ways of solving problems, societies are formed from a baseline of shared values. If we can once again come to understand those, we can begin to rediscover our common ground, which is precisely why we’re not making a political film.
That’s how you solve problems.
GS: As a political expert, we started in the Rust Belt because that is where the most turnover has occurred—and radical turnover at that. If you can go from voting for Obama to voting for Trump in a matter of a few years, something is going on. So, we started there, and boy were we right about the visceral responses; responses you would not have expected.
I don't want to go too deep into our findings yet, but we have been able to piece together a shared set of values that cut across these sectors of society. That's what we need to address.
Q: What are your plans for the project going forward?
JK: First, we have to finish the film, and we’re working with a variety of people to make it fiscally solvent. Editing the 120 plus hours we have already shot, we are going to determine where else to shoot and what experts to bring into the film. For me personally, it is important to involve academics and journalists that are connected to both parts of America, not folks who have been stuck in a singular bubble their entire lives.
Second, we want to open the film at Sundance in 2018. However, it is very important that we take our message out to places that don’t care about or watch films that play at Sundance. We are formulating a 50 state road tour that will bring the film to small towns and spark conversations at the local level that will hopefully spread upwards to our national leadership.
Finally, we are working with an educational consultant to develop curriculum for the film. Both of my parents were teachers, and I know first hand how teachers across every state must integrate educational objectives in their daily lesson plans. Our consultant will be watching rough cuts of the film all the way to the final product to write workbooks around its concepts and help bring the next generation into the conversation.
We really want to speak with all Americans on this topic. If we’re going to fulfill that goal, we have to reach them wherever they are.