TOWN HALL casts an unflinching eye at Katy and John, two Tea Party activists from the battleground state of Pennsylvania who believe America's salvation lies in a return to true conservative values.
In Katy, we see a political novice rocketed to media stardom after a sensational confrontation at a town hall meeting with her senator. A young stay-at-home mom turned Tea Party spokesperson, she is gifted a new identity, steeled by the voices of conservative media.
For John, a retired former businessman and lifelong Republican living in one of the poorest cities in the country, the America he knows is slipping away. Heading up a local Tea Party group is his last, best chance at stanching the changes he is witnessing all around him, but unable to afford his aging mother’s health care, John has to make difficult decisions that reveal the complicated relationship between his principles and the demands of his life.
More than a political treatise, TOWN HALL is a tone poem that immerses the viewer in Katy and John’s world, painting a portrait of the fears of those who believe they will be left behind by a nation's transition.
In the summer of 2009, town halls across America filled with an unlikely group of protesters: white, middle class Americans outraged at Obama’s healthcare agenda. Their fury about the direction the country was headed in had driven them to confront their elected officials, who they believed were betraying them and the nation.
Having worked on historical documentaries that examined the individuals who have shaped American history, we were fascinated and confounded. Though we do not personally agree with the political views that were being expressed, we were certain that we were witnessing the unfolding of an important story - one that reflected something profound about who we are as a country.
Hungry to know more, we found little but polarizing media debates fueled by the 24-hour news cycle. Living in a contentious political climate in which the public square has become an increasingly fractured space, we felt that this topic deserved a longitudinal portrait that immersed the viewer in the daily lives and worldviews of the individuals who made up the Tea Party movement.
We were drawn to John and Katy, two Tea Party activists from Central Pennsylvania, whose personal stories and emerging political trajectories seemed emblematic of the larger Tea Party story: Katy as young stay-at-home mom who was entering politics for the first time in her life, and John as a member of the Boomer generation who was unsettled by the social, political, and cultural transformations he was witnessing in his hometown and the nation at large.
Their home state also intrigued us: neither red nor blue, Pennsylvania is a bellwether state for our Presidential elections and reflects many of the larger national tensions: collapsed industry, environmental and energy issues, and race and immigration, which serves as a backdrop against which we watch Katy and John’s stories play out. The quiet rural town that Katy lives in is reflective of the traditional values she is desperate to maintain, and which she perceives to be threatened by an “un-American” liberal assault. For John, Reading’s relatively recent demographic shift towards a population comprised primarily of Hispanic residents feeds into a darker set of attitudes: his fear that new immigrant communities are corrupting the nation’s foundational values.
This story seemed impossible to tell without also charting the strong influence of the conservative media as a voice that shapes their worldviews, and to which John and Katy, like many in the movement, turn in search of answers. It is the clearest expression of the fear, marginalization, and loss of identity that we identified as central preoccupations of Katy and John.
The first decade of the 21st century has challenged our perceptions of who we are - our economy is on shaky legs, our demographic composition is shifting, and our place on the global stage is increasingly unclear. In a time of national uncertainty, the Tea Party has delivered a set of answers to those who fear they will be left behind by a yet-to-be-defined new America.
We see in their fight echoes of debates reaching all the way back to the country’s founding: the role of the national government, the individual vs. the common good, and the very notion of who is allowed - which races, cultures, and religions - to be included in the American experiment. The forces animating the Tea Party are not new, and they are not going away. Our highest hope for this project is that it will offer an insight into the seductive promise of community and empowerment that the Tea Party has provided at a time of enormous transition.