This Divided StateReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 08/27/05 17:44:46
(Worth A Look)
“There’s no such thing as an objective viewpoint!” So cries Alex Caldeiro, a humanities professor at Utah Valley State College. Caldeiro has a knack for hysterics and exaggeration, so when he looks directly into the camera during the documentary “This Divided State” and educates us on how “we all see things through filters! Filters!,” we listen up.Caldiero has a point. Your reaction to “This Divided State” will depend on your own filters - and yet, unlike so many other recent political documentaries that sink or swim entirely on the viewer’s political stance, this film actually manages to work for you no matter what your party is. Director/producer Steven Greenstreet and his filmmaking team have managed to assemble footage that allow both sides to boo the other guys, root for their own… and maybe even vice versa.
Greenstreet’s film works as yet another painful reminder of the death of political discourse in the United States. Things have become unnaturally nasty over the past decade, with compromise and polite discussion shoved aside in favor of close-mindedness spurred on by a bevy of party-centric news outlets that makes it possible these days to live one’s entire life without ever having to encounter, let alone evaluate, a dissenting opinion. (That said, please note that I’m right about everything. Always.)
Greenstreet’s Case In Point is the chaos that erupted in the fall of 2004 at UVSC, an unassuming college in Orem, Utah, aka “Family City USA,” described by one resident as being in “the most conservative county in the most conservative state in the United States.” The UVSC student body, as part of their program to bring in exciting, popular speakers, scheduled Michael Moore to come visit the campus, an event scheduled to take place a mere two weeks before the 2004 Presidential election. This, of course, during the entire controversy surrounding the release of Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.” In Utah. You can see where this is going.
From the right, we get screams of how Michael Moore is un-American, is against everything the community believes, is just plain evil. From the left, we get yells of free speech, First Amendment, “Pro-Moore, anti-war.” From the center, we get… relatively few voices of common sense - one of those voices belonging to Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith, who’s quoted in the film’s opening title card as saying: “Political views and party distinctions should never disturb the harmony of society.”
This being Utah (a state with where 75 percent of the population is Mormon), religion plays a major role in this debate. The anti-Moore crusaders cry that Orem is a city designed to keep the world away; bringing Moore into their protected, self-built conservative haven goes against the city’s design. Pro-Moore defenders cry that Mormons are supposed to teach tolerance and open-mindedness to the world, and how can one be tolerant of other views if one will not allow other views to be heard?
The debate is complicated by such issues as a matter of money - opponents of Moore’s visit claim that they don’t object to him coming to town to speak, they merely object to using $40,000 of college funds to pay for such a visit. But ticket sales and sponsorships deals, not college funds, are paying that fee… or maybe not, depending on which side you want to believe. Things get even stranger when the college announces it’s bringing in Sean Hannity to speak one week before Moore’s visit, in hopes of providing balance. Once again, however, money begins to confuse the issues, as it’s revealed that Hannity is waiving his usual speaking fee, but is asking the college to spend $50,000 on his transportation.
But is money the real issue, or is it just one more talking point for both sides? Enter Caldiero again, who asks the crowd to explain to him the problem with Moore’s visit… “but don’t say money!” And yes, it’s pretty much clear that speaking fees and private jet cash are mere punctuation marks on the argument, that it’s mainly all about whether or not the America-hating/America-loving Moore should be allowed to give an anti-Bush speech in the heart of Bush Country.
Still, the issue, like far too many other issues in this nation, is too complex for some to want to try to comprehend. The movie’s best moment comes at a campus rally, in which members of both sides are allowed to come to the microphone and speak their mind. One smartass steps up and announces how he doesn’t bother with the facts, and how rumors tell him how much Moore hates everybody, and how classes will be cancelled from now on, and students will only be taught Moore’s opinions. The point is clear: some people make up their minds without bothering with pesky details like studying actual events. (Case in point: a radio host tells how of all the callers who mentioned how “Fahrenheit 9/11” was a hateful, anti-American product, and how Moore uses the movie to destroy the nation, not a single one had actually seen the film.)
Remembering Caldeiro’s “filters,” I admit to coming away from this movie certain that the liberals got it all right, and that the conservatives did everything wrong. And yet I get this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that right-wing viewers will walk away with the opposite reaction, beaming with pride at the clips of Sean Hannity’s speech, booing ’til they can’t boo no more during the Moore segments. Filters.
But here’s the thing. As angry as this film will make you - no matter what your political affiliation - it will also slap you around and ask you to look at reason. Consider the film’s central characters. Kay Anderson, the leader of the anti-Moore movement, comes across as a screaming, Zell Miller-esque nutcase… until we actually bother to sit down with him and hear him explain his case in a civilized manner. The president and vice-president of the student body are played by the anti-Moore side as sneaky brats who overstepped their powers by inviting Moore… except that when we actually bother to sit down with them and hear them explain their case in a civilized manner.
You see the trend here? “This Divided State” reminds us that behind every protestor, every political activist, every rabid screamer, there’s a real person with real opinions. And maybe we’d all be better off if we just got around to talking rationally to the other side. Compromise will save us all. Bitter politics will not.
That said, I doubt that the more civilized tone will convince others to change their mind. Personally, I thought that everything Anderson had to say, even in polite conversation, was wrong - but this is not the point of the film. Greenstreet lets his subjects’ comments hang there, their truths or idiocies clear for all to interpret. His object here is not to get one to agree or disagree with the Other Side, but just to realize that if we’d all stop with the screaming, then maybe we’d discover that it might be OK to go bowling with the Other Side sometime, and we all won’t kill each other if we get to know each other.But the state of our union is not about to change overnight. By film’s end, both sides have gone into crazy overreaction mode, even though the speeches and the election have long gone. Just when we think the other side is actually full of nice-guys-if-we-get-to-know-them, here they go again, leaving common sense behind them, all in the name of politics. Looks like it’s going to be a long, long road back to civility.
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