Here are two reviews of the timely documentary Join or Die which is playing at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival on Saturday, February 10!
Alyssa Chierchia's Review:
Join or Die, directed by the sibling duo of Rebecca Davis and Pete Davis, is a film about “why you should join a club, and how the fate of democracy depends on it.” Although a rather punchy introduction line, this interesting documentary proves the statement true throughout its runtime, along with many other aspects that make it a compelling watch.
Join or Die dives deep into covering the history and future of popular clubs and social organizations, and how people either joining or not joining them can affect the state of America as a country. The documentary heavily features the presence and ideology of Robert Putnam, a Harvard professor who taught Pete Davis himself. He penned the novel “Bowling Alone” which focused on the decline of social capital and community engagement.
In a filmmaker Q + A with Rebecca Davis, she described how this film came to be, starting from when she covered the symptoms of a lack of social community while working as a journalist. These included tragedies such as higher suicide rates and addiction, among others. She worked with her brother to gather Putnam’s teachings into a documentary so that many more people could learn how a lack of social capital can be dangerous to democracy and increase those exact situations.
For any documentary that is very historical and political science-focused, going into these concepts that many might not be familiar with is a tough challenge. It can be hard for a general audience to understand and become invested in something that they might have yet to think about in the first place. However, Join or Die does a great job of introducing these topics easily and entertainingly.
The film also included interviews with political figures such as Hillary Clinton and Pete Buttigieg. Clinton herself clarified that the leadership present in clubs and organizations strongly resembled the structure of politics and how countries make decisions. This concept is the main point of the film and helps to answer the question raised from its initial statement: how does the fate of democracy depend on people joining clubs?
Gathering interviews from these well-known political figures is a smart choice to help gain more insight into the subject. As a viewer, it piqued my interest to know these people were involved.
Join or Die is of outstanding visual quality with its high definition and editing, and this also includes its graphic design and animation. It took the subject and elevated it in a way I wasn’t expecting when I first watched it, which makes this documentary stand out from any other. Animation director Mark Lopez made this film intriguing to the eyes in various ways, often through color, the specific choice of moving text, sound effects such as page turning, etc.
Archival photos, a staple of any documentary, are even reinvented with bold colorful highlights, adding to the film’s theme of looking back on history and bringing it to the modern forefront.
Rebecca Davis stated that the goal for the visuals was to create a “A lively American scrapbook,” that was able to “celebrate our rich civic past.” These elements were made to celebrate the “everyday heroes,” and made this documentary even more special.
Join or Die may start with Putnam and his story, ranging from not just his studies in America but also Italy, but it won’t end there. This documentary will open many’s eyes to the concept of democracy and what people can do to get involved. As Pete Davis narrates towards the film’s end, “The perfect constitution, or the perfect education system, or the perfect economy, isn't enough if we aren’t participating. We make democracy work.”
Sarah Ventola 's Review:
Join or Die, a feature length documentary film directed by Rebecca Davis and Peter Davis, focuses on the importance of connection between individuals in various public spaces and how it contributes to a successful democracy. Visual imagery and informative information pair well throughout the film to execute this democratic message. Further, many well-known people help contribute to the film's narration. An inspiring and informative documentary, Join or Die leaves the audience with a greater understanding of interpersonal relationships, societal issues, and electric empowerment.
Join or Die focuses on the research of Robert Putnam, a Harvard Professor and award winner. Putnam’s research pays great attention to the importance of groups and clubs amongst society. Specifically, how economic and democratic success within countries is influenced by people’s connection with each other. Throughout the film, Putnam, as well as many famous politicians, are featured speaking about his research, and showcasing various clubs and organizations. These groups emphasized to improve democratic growth include: religious, political, and extracurricular. Join or Die also showcases Putnam’s use of the word social capital. Putnam’s version of social capital revolves around how social networks contribute to society.
A main focus on Putnam’s research revolves around how the decline of bowling tied with a collapse of the American community. In addition to bowling, various organizations and clubs also reflect a decline in correspondence with the American democratic degradation. Intriguing graphics and visual imagery pair well with these informative scenes creating a mesmerizing film.
In addition to formal group settings, Putnam also noted the importance of casual meetings to contribute to society. These include everyday activities such as dinner parties, picnics and social gatherings. Sadly, Putnam’s research also noted a decline in these activities as well a decrease in positive social progress. This truth is an unfortunate reality for viewers to face. However, the solution to this issue is clear: making an effort to get together with others can help combat decline and further positive democratic growth.
Paring Putnam’s research with the creative visual graphics throughout the film gives the viewer a sense of electric inspiration. Presenting the viewer with the dire state of society and that the increasing decline of social groups for proper democratic growth is a depressing reality to face. However, this visual imagery and Putnam’s charisma help balance the overall message and feeling throughout the film. Additionally, the audience is presented with the solution to fix the decline of society by joining a club or group. Showing an issue that can be fixed through a simple active choice leaves the viewer informed, inspired, and ready to take action.
The film emphasizes an important and fundamental aspect of societal need. In this way, Join or Die functions as an important informative documentary that can positively contribute to society and democracy as a whole. In the age of excessive digital use, it is essential to be reminded of the basic fundamental need for in-person discourse amongst individuals within
society. This connection between each other is not only complementary, it is also the essential glue to a successful democracy. The film informs the viewer with a dire democratic message, but leaves them with a solution of how to fix it. In this way, the viewer is left informed and empowered on how to take the next steps to make a positive change around them.
Join or Die reminds viewers of the importance of connecting with others. Getting together with others gives people a sense of belonging, community, and inspiration. Importantly, this connection helps democracy thrive in many ways. Thanks to Putnam’s research, paired with Rebecca Davis and Peter Davis’ inspirational directing, the film functions as a powerful guide that the viewer can use to make positive changes within their community.
Join or Die will be playing at the Spring 2024 New Jersey Film Festival on Saturday, February 10 – Online on this show date for 24 Hours and In-Person at 7PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, NJ. For more info and tickets go here.