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Important Documentary Feature Join or Die will be playing at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival on Saturday, February 10!


By Al Nigrin

originally published: 02/06/2024

Important Documentary Feature Join or Die will be playing at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival on Saturday, February 10!

Join or Die 
is a film about why you should join a club — and why the fate of America may depend on it. In this feature documentary, follow the half-century story of America's civic unraveling through the journey of legendary social scientist Robert Putnam, whose groundbreaking "Bowling Alone" research into America's decades-long decline in community connections could hold the answers to our democracy's present crisis. Flanked by influential fans and scholars — from Hillary Clinton, Pete Buttigieg, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to Eddie Glaude Jr., Raj Chetty, and Priya Parker — as well as inspiring groups building community in neighborhoods across the country, join Bob as he explores three urgent civic questions: What makes democracy work? Why is American democracy in crisis? And, most importantly…What can we do about it?

Join or Die Co-Directors Pete and Rebecca Davis, who are brother and sister, responded to my questions about their terrific film via email. Here is my interview with them:

Nigrin: Pete, you were a student in Prof. Putnam’s courses, when did you decide you were going to make a film about him and his research on social clubs? How did you get involved in this project, Rebecca?

Davis: It is hard to wrap our arms around a topic as big as “American community.” However, Harvard professor and Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam has, perhaps better than anyone else living today, attempted to do so. Even better, he is a master at translating his trailblazing social science research on America’s social fabric into engaging stories. For decades, he has explained to rapt audiences around the country—from VFW halls to the Oval Office—his illuminating findings on the fraying of our nation’s social fabric, but the entirety of his work has never been featured in a documentary film with the potential to reach a much wider audience. 

This story is personal to us. We grew up in a small Virginia town (Falls Church) where everyone was a joiner — and we saw firsthand how a strong civic culture can make a community’s institutions run better. As a news producer at NBC, I (Rebecca) had reported on so many symptoms of our civic decline — from mass shootings to political violence to our healthcare and economic crises — that I felt called to tell a story that struck at a root cause — the fraying of our social fabric. And as a political advocate, I (Pete) witnessed how much the levels of participation of ordinary citizens affects the quality of legislation in Congress, statehouses, and city councils across the country. In 2017, we approached Bob to see if he’d been open to the idea of a film on his life and work, and we’re here today because he was.  



 
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With Join or Die, we aim to introduce Putnam’s research on the importance of community to democracy and the decline in American community engagement over the past decades to more Americans—and especially to young Americans who were not alive to experience Bowling Alone going viral decades ago. We hope that the film  not only helps promote the public understanding of the social science on American community—but also sheds light on what Americans across the country can do with this newfound understanding. As the unraveling of our social fabric has accelerated in the COVID era, we hope that revisiting Putnam’s groundbreaking civic findings—and spotlighting the creative local groups acting in the spirit of them—can serve to inspire viewers to do what needs to be done to save our democracy: Join up!

Important Documentary Feature Join or Die will be playing at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival on Saturday, February 10!

Nigrin: 
The animation sequences done by Mark Lopez are absolutely brilliant. Tell us more about him and how you got to work together.

Davis: We were so lucky to bring together the incredibly talented team that brought this film (and Bob’s work) to life — including Chad Ervin (editor), Chad Cannon (composer), Rebecca Kent (archival producer), and Mark Lopez (animation director).

Mark Lopez of Silkworm Studio in Austin, Texas was the animation director on the project and really took our advice of “get weird” to heart in his creative approach to bringing our incredible trove of archival material to life. We found Mark’s work through a previous project of his, Segregated By Design, and knew we had to find a way to work with him. 

Nigrin:  What are some of the movies you use as intertexts? I recognized one from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. Why did you pick these?

Davis: We were fortunate enough to work with veteran editor Chad Ervin of Vermont-based Well Told Films for the project who had years of experience telling complex stories for numerous episodes of PBS' Frontline and multiple American Experience documentaries. His creative ability to visualize the sometimes very broad ideas we were discussing in the film with unique archival material brought so much to the project.  

Nigrin:  Are there any memorable stories while you made this film or any other info about your film you would like to relay to us?



 
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Davis: Most documentaries put their takeaways at the end, but we put ours right at the beginning: “This is a film about why you should join a club — and why the fate of America depends on it.” We want viewers walking away knowing that their ordinary acts of civic participation — joining a club, reading a local newspaper, showing up at a public meeting, even just having their neighbors over to hang out — are the building blocks of our whole democracy.

More broadly, we want viewers walking away with a “community lens”: a way of thinking about current events in terms of how they impact — and are impacted by — social networks, community relationships, and local organizations. This lens can be tremendously clarifying, helping us understand trends and events in a new way than we may have previously when only looking at the world through, for example, an economic or political lens.

When we started conceiving of this film five years ago, everyone was talking about the crisis of American democracy. Americans — from all across the country, from all walks of life, from both sides of the political aisle — were searching for answers to fundamental civic questions: What makes democracy work? Why is our democracy in crisis? And, most importantly: What can we do about it? At the time, most of the paths forward we were being given — tinker with this particular rule, elect this particular person, stop this particular threat — did not seem to strike at the root of our civic crisis.

But there was one angle on the crisis that was going deeper — and, in doing so, was resonating with us, and with most Americans who had come in contact with it: Social Isolation. So many of our problems seemed to stem from the breakdown of real-world community ties — and, conversely, so many of the initiatives inspiring hope across the country today started out with the goal of bringing people together, growing new relationships, and building bridges across differences. 

Looking at our public problems through the lens of social connections helped give us clarity we had not had before — and reflecting on the idea of weaving together American community — one club at a time, one neighborhood at time — gave us hope we had not possessed before. We hope that this film can help us share that lens and that hope with more people.

Join or Die will be playing at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival on Saturday, February 10 – Online for 24 Hours on this show date and In-Person at 7PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ. For more info and tickets go here.

 

 

 

 



 
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Albert Gabriel Nigrin is an award-winning experimental media artist whose work has been screened on all five continents. He is also a Cinema Studies Lecturer at Rutgers University, and the Executive Director/Curator of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, Inc.

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