Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Thursday, November 13, 2003  

The American Consensus

About the Project
The world of politics is one typically explored through views on issues and candidates. Do you approve of the President? Are you for or against abortion? Do you feel the war in Iraq is going well? The terrain of politics is mapped out based on the answers to these questions. Tune into “This Week” and you’ll hear George Will describe how the President will be re-elected if he can get enough suburban housewives who support him on the war and forgive him for his stand on abortion, for example.

But these superficial characterizations are of little value in determining how people feel about politics in the larger sense--what their values, needs, and ideas about the solutions might be. When a pollster calls, it’s like he’s asking whether the voter prefers a red shirt or a blue one. And while the voter will generally have an opinion, the question misses information that might be truly useful: does the voter even want another shirt? Maybe she'd like a sari instead. Politics are defined by the parameters set by pollsters and politicians: red shirt, blue shirt. But if we sat down and talked to Americans about politics in a very large sense, would they even mention shirts? Instead of asking about shirts, what would we learn if we asked: How do people live? What do they believe? Who do they admire? What are their priorities?

I have an assumption about politics. I think that the patterns of people’s values looks different when you scratch below the surface than it does when you ask people what they think about issues. This documentary is an effort to test that hypothesis. Is there a broader consensus among Americans that would guide better, more effective policy? What does that consensus look like?

I envision American Consensus to be a discussion with Americans. I’d like to hear from people across the country and from all different backgrounds. Initially, I thought about going out and doing the documentary myself, but this has a number of downsides. The biggest is that I wouldn’t have the time or money to interview a truly broad range of Americans. But I also don’t have access to many Americans. So then I wondered: why not see if I could get filmmakers from around the country to interview people in their communities?

Concept and Logistics
Assuming I found enough filmmakers willing to do interviews, this is how I think we’d proceed. We would all use the same questions in the interviews to ensure compatible narratives. I can start with a group I’d like, but I imagine the final list would be arrived at from the group. The film would be shot on Mini DV, because that’s all I have the knowledge to edit. While audio must be very clear (in documentaries, it’s all about the audio), I don’t think we’d need to put much limit on technical quality. External mics are usually a benefit, but single CCD cameras and ambient lighting would be fine as long as the picture quality was pretty good.

The interviews would have to be as concise as possible, but I imagine they’ll run from 15 minutes to an hour. Doing interviews is both hard and easy: easy because you’re in and out fairly quickly--no reshooting scenes 34 times; hard because as an interviewer, you’ll have to probe and ask possibly awkward questions. That can be personally draining. In addition to the interviews, some stock footage of the location of the shoot and the general region you hail from would also be handy. I would hope folks could do 3-5 interviews each. If enough filmmakers agree to do this, that will ensure a nice distribution and also allow you to get into the process. In all, you might spend ten to twenty hours setting up the interviews, getting your equipment ready, shooting stock footage, and doing the interviews. Ideally, each filmmaker would try to get a racially, economically, and demographically diverse set of interviews. If there’s enough interest, we can talk about how you’ll find your sample.

After collecting the interviews, I’d begin a rough cut. My main role in this project would be as editor, though I’d do some interviews myself. I would do my best to work with themes that emerge from your footage. Obviously, this is a subjective process, but I’d let the interviews speak to me. (So, if everyone is echoing what the Republicans have been saying about “family values” et. al., those would become the central themes.) If we’re looking for a true consensus, the interview subjects have to speak for themselves. Following that, I’ll find stock and archival footage and music to flesh out the themes, all of which can be open to contribution. Although I’ll take the lead on this, it can be as collaborative as the contributors wish.

Anyone who’s footage is used in the film will be credited up-front (we might have to think of an appropriate name); anyone who contributes footage will be credited at the end of the film. As a documentary, I naturally assume that this thing will make no money, but we’ll have some kind of contract so that if it does, you’ll be assured of seeing the fruits of your labor. (Something like: if the film makes a modest amount of money, I’ll reimburse everyone for time and effort. If it makes a more substantial profit, I’ll give a percentage to those whose footage appeared. And if it goes Michael Moore, I’ll give reimbursements, percentages, and put the rest of the money into a predetermined fund, either for political action or for filmmakers.)

About Me
I’ve made one documentary, a film called “Five Rings in Zion” about the Salt Lake Olympics and how they affected the city’s Mormon/non-Mormon populations. It showed at the New York Independent Film and Video Fest, and was, to be honest, only average. But hey, it was my first. I interviewed religious authorities, local politicians (including the mayor), scholars, journalists, and people at the Olympics, so I’ve got something of a handle on that process. I’m currently at work on another documentary about American Buddhists. Of course, you know my work here as a blogger, too.

posted by Jeff | 2:54 PM |
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