Discussion – let alone, discussion leading to compromise – appears to be a massive challenge in today’s political climate. It seems that healthy debate cannot be held without devolving into name-calling, mudslinging and in some cases, clear hatred for the opposing viewpoint. In many ways brought to light by the 2016 U.S. presidential election – but in no way caused by the election – Americans find themselves in an environment which not only dismisses others’ viewpoints, but makes it impossible to find any sort of common ground as a nation.
How and why has the United States hit such a low point in public discourse? In The American Question, director James Kicklighter teams up with producer Guy Seemann to interview Americans from all sectors of society to ask how they perceive America today, what they believe are American values and identify opportunities to repair the broken relationship between fellow citizens.
In this interview with James, we discuss his involvement in the film, what he experienced while conducting the interviews, and what conclusions he hopes the audience will draw.
The American Question Blog: How did you and Guy connect?
James Kicklighter (Director, The American Question): Guy and I worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but we did not know each other. He worked in Pennsylvania on the community level, while I worked in Virginia as the campaign’s filmmaker. Tara Ansley, a film producer we both know, heard about Guy’s idea to tell a story about American values. Being that I had never worked in politics before, exclusively in film, she thought our backgrounds would complement each other.
TAQ: What drew you to The American Question?
JK: I think there was common ground from the beginning. Guy and I had gone through a similar experience working for the campaign, although Guy saw the communal discord unfold on a local level. I had more a birds’ eye view of this issue from the state and national level. He certainly saw more disunity, conflict and dialogue breakdown than I did. But what I experienced nationally placed what he saw locally into a broader context of this larger problem: being unable to agree on basic, core American values.
TAQ: What was your mindset when you joined The American Question?
JK: I’ve been directing for a little over 12 years now, and I’ve been very fortunate to have a diverse set of filmmaking experiences across the country and around the world. When I jumped into The American Question, it was very similar to when I first started filmmaking – we knew there was a story here, but it was one that would unfold as we progressed and interviewed more people.
I went in with an open mind. I wanted to see what was going on and speak to a variety of people at different economic, educational, geographic, and demographic areas of society. We wanted to create a film that was going to effectively speak to as many groups of people as possible, to tell a broader story of what’s going on with the country.
TAQ: What is this broader story that you hope to tell?
JK: From a directorial perspective, when you’re creating a documentary film of this nature, you look for repetition, things that consistently come up again and again with all these strangers. The main theme that kept coming up was this concept that “my neighbor isn’t my neighbor anymore.” Many expressed the idea that their fellow American may not share the same system of values they personally held. I found that particularly moving – and surprising.
I believe that nearly everyone in the world is raised with a certain amount of nationalism, a set of values which construct what it means to be from your country. The fact that I was hearing Americans in rural, suburban and urban areas of all political affiliations saying that their neighbor was bankrupt of those values was shocking.
Party A felt that Party B didn’t care about Party A’s interests and vice versa. When I started hearing this from people of dramatically different demographics, I knew that an interesting pattern was unfolding – one that was relevant to nearly everyone in the United States today. It’s a dangerous descent into tribalism.
TAQ: You grew up in rural Georgia in a town with only about 100 people living in it. How did that experience shape your outlook on the United States, and in particular, how you understand the frustration at the root of the great American divide today?
JK: A good portion of my life is seen through the rural American experience, which can include extreme poverty, single-parent households and a bastion of migrant workers. That’s a perspective that many who work in media and/or politics don’t really share at a personal level. Many of the people we work with are from or work in cities and come from a certain degree of privilege.
As a small-town kid wishing to become a filmmaker, I had limited opportunities to explore that without leaving home. I didn’t have any rich uncles to bankroll my early work, funding it through wedding videos and high school graduation DVDs. I went to college at Georgia Southern University on the HOPE Scholarship, a half-hour away from my home town, so everything I did in my career I had to work a little harder to get. I was just lucky to meet some extraordinary mentors at film festivals along the way who helped me get to where I am today.
I think often about that – what it’s like to be in rural America and what it is like to want something beyond your limitations, whether those limitations were caused by geography or money. If you’re lucky enough to build a career within those parameters, you also develop a broader sense of empathy.
TAQ: How do you think this film can empower Americans to talk about their issues instead of pointing fingers and blaming “the other?”
JK: I hope The American Question helps people to recognize that their neighbor isn’t an opponent. Someone may come to a different conclusion about a set of facts based on their ideological perspective, and that can be perfectly valid.
I think it’s dangerous when someone comes to a different set of conclusions and then uses that as ammunition against differing opinions, against those who they believe do not have their best interests at heart.
I have many friends who are conservative, and no matter who they voted for, they are not bad people. They simply came to a different conclusion than I did about how to address issues in the United States. If we can’t have spirited debate and find compromise together, if I can’t discuss these issues civilly with my friend, then we’re going to fall into a state of paranoia in a way that will make America unsustainable.
Societies are built on compromise, and we can hold our values and find things that we agree upon, but we have to quit shouting and listen to each other in order to take action.