A Political-Documentary “Reality Check” with Jonathan Goodman Levitt of “Follow the Leader”

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Follow the Leader, a documentary by Jonathan Goodman Levitt

On Tuesday, October 16, 2012, Paley DocFest in New York City will screen Jonathan Goodman Levitt’s documentary Follow The Leader: Politics Isn’t Just Child’s Play The film follows three young right-wing class presidents and their personal & political trajectories over the course of three years — charmingly goofy D.J., earnestly intense Ben, and All-American Nick.

What’s unique about this particular event is that audience members will be able to interact with the film and the second presidential debate that follows it. Rather than play the movie straight through, the film will be broken down into five chapters with discussions in between. During those breaks participants will be able to respond to questions using keypads for what the organizers are calling a “Reality Check.” After the screening, participants will be encouraged to stick around for the 9:00 PM debates where they can continue their reality check.

This year’s Paley DocFest has a focus on politically themed documentaries. I spoke with filmmaker Jonathan Goodman Levitt to get more of an idea about why he feels so strongly about engaging audiences in a political dialogue during the heat of this political season.

Where do you see documentaries in the scope of American politics?

The impact of documentary on politics in this election cycle is highly negative and highly damaging because it plays into the wider problems inherent in our media and culture. We like to pat ourselves on the back a lot as filmmakers because there are a lot of strong films being made every year, but by and large these films aren’t getting seen by large numbers – and they’re certainly not getting seen by the people who need to see them, with notable exceptions. Apart from entertainment-value-driven network news, the documentary-led discussion in most of the country is dominated by the highly offensive and ridiculous screeds like Obama’s America 2016 and other partisan films by those mostly on the Left who wind up preaching to the converted, amplifying destructive attitudes, and increasing political polarization – in the end making the situation worse on multiple levels. Some films might help drive turnout, but they’re even less successful at that than amateur “gotcha” videos that overtake us like the one of Mitt Romney talking about “the 47%.”

I’ve actually come to understand why people on the Right feel disenfranchised by public media, and feel that it’s left-wing. My own politics aside, I’ve made enemies by even using the approach I chose because the film doesn’t take a strong position against its characters. And it’s been somewhat shocking, and a learning experience about our culture, generally to be met with such distrust, hatred, disdain and dismissive responses. We have deep issues that we need to address as a documentary community in terms of how our work engages the public. But more than that, as a country we need the fundamental change and the substantive, inclusive dialogue that a stronger, reformed documentary community can in fact provide to help us address our national problems and save ourselves.

Can you describe how the Reality Check interactive works? How are you hoping it will engage viewers?

Essentially, Follow the Leader: Reality Check Interactive breaks the feature documentary Follow the Leader into five “episodes” that alternate with collective, facilitated interactive keypad voting sections. What we’re doing is leading viewers – who we consider participants – through a journey that allows for more reflection, deeper engagement, and we think greater fulfillment. Everyone’s responses — to questions about the characters, their views, participants’ own political views and current events relevant to the film’s themes — are reported in real-time, split along demographic lines.

What’s going to happen with the data you collect?

Right now, Reality Check Interactive is developed as a live event. We’re aiming to collect the data from live events to investigate whether taking part in the experience really does decrease political polarization and increase cross-partisan understanding and dialogue like we think it will. We’re working with a growing number of academics on our questions and data collection. Research psychology is part of my own background before moving into filmmaking, so it’s not completely out of left field.

One concept that we’re finding a particular challenge to consider measuring is whether taking part in Reality Check encourages people to step back and consider whether the leaders we’re getting are the leaders we truly need. That goes to our wider goal for FTL:RCI, which is basically to encourage a deeper conversation, to change the conversation. For the widest exposure, we need to build a way to experience it online and make it available on-demand, and we’re talking with broadcasters and online platforms now about making this happen next year.

How do see D.J., Ben, and Nick becoming avatars for the 2012 elections?

The boys’ stories are meant to be evergreen. How they grow up represents the process of figuring out what you believe politically speaking, and what you want to do in your life, that everyone goes through – even if we all don’t start off wanting to be President. But in the context of the election we’re all experiencing now, there are at least a few specific readings that help spark some interesting discussions. The boys are all white Protestants, and two of the three are relatively well-off while growing up, so they can be seen as avatars for how our traditional American leaders are responding to demographic shifts in the country. We did in fact become a majority-minority country and elected our first African-American President while we were filming. Similarly, they all started Republican before splitting into Republican, Democratic and Independent camps in the film – so they also provide some insights into the splintering of the Republican Party and its future.

In a wider sense, the boys’ stories of coming-of-age, of disillusionment, mirrors what the country’s been experiencing over the past years since the recession began. Many people across the political spectrum are disappointed by President Obama’s failure to live up to impossibly high expectations, but in some sense have come to accept reality – like we all do in the process of growing up. High hopes are dashed, but hope itself remains. And whether you agree with the boys’ politics or not, they do provide hope for tomorrow’s generation because they undoubtedly care; they undoubtedly are engaged politically; they are decent and aim to stay that way. And yet at times they have an innocence, an ignorance or an overconfidence that haunts them… much like many Americans, and at times our leaders.

The young men in the film were all born the year the Berlin Wall fell, and were turning twelve in 2001, which is when I feel people are able to start thinking more abstractly about politics and the world. I don’t think we understand our recent history well at all as Americans, or that we’ve begun to come to terms with the mentality of perpetual war with which young Americans have grown up. Getting to know the first generation of Americans who didn’t know what “America” meant before this newest chapter for our country speaks to what the idea of America means today.

The filmmaker is offering a limited number of free tickets to the interactive screening on a first-come first-serve basis. Email your ticket request to info@changeworx.com no later than Monday, October 15, 2012 — tonight! If you miss that offer, tickets are available at paleycenter.org.

Adam Schartoff
Adam Schartoff
Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.