POV: So how did you come to make The Fire Next Time?
Patrice O’Neill: The story really begins for us [The Working Group] about ten years ago when we did a film called “Not In Our Town.” It’s about people in Billings, Montana, who fought against hate crimes. It was a PBS special in 1995. People saw the story of what people did there and said, “We can apply this to our communities.” We got a call a while ago from an ex-cop in Kalispell, Montana who said, “I’d like to start a ‘Not In Our Town’ movement. I’d like to use the film and see if people can find a way to get together, because I sense some danger in this community.” And that’s how we first came into the picture in Kalispell.
POV: Can you describe how the NIOT organization works?
O’Neill: It’s sort of like this little miracle for a documentary filmmaker. You make a film, as we did with “Not In Our Town” and then people start to use it. It’s not just something that appears on the screen or you see it on TV and you think about maybe using it. People apply the story to their own communities. And ten years later they continue to call us up. So part of what we do is not just documentary production or media production or the Web, it’s really responding to people and connecting them to each other. “Here’s what they did in Bloomington, Illinois. You should talk to the people in Boston.” “Here’s what they did in Billings, Montana and you should talk to the people in Greenville, South Carolina.”
So it’s really changed our company and certainly changed and influenced my work, because that’s really what I want to do — tell the kinds of stories that make people say, “What can I learn from that? What can I discuss with other people in my community about how we can improve our civic life? How we can make our city safer for everyone who lives here?”
POV: How did you get to Kalispell?
O’Neill: I think when you first start watching this film, you think it’s going to be a scary movie. In a lot of ways, it is. But what I tried to do is tell this story as it was revealed to me. And the spark really was a call from a former cop who said, “I’m worried about the atmosphere in my town. I’m worried about racist voices that I hear on this radio station.” And I heard her and I tried to respond to her, but I didn’t really get the wake-up call until the national news media broke a story about a domestic terror cell that had just been uncovered in the town, with a huge cache of weapons and an assassination list that included many of the cops, judges, prosecutors and their families in the town. I don’t think anybody knew this was going on under their noses.
We went to Kalispell for the first “Hands Against Hate” meeting. It was called right after the domestic terror cell was uncovered. I think at that point, even though people in the town had become fearful, people decided they had to respond. I really thought that I was going into this community to show how people can organize and respond to the threat of violence. I thought it would be a simple little story — maybe a website story.
And then I found this whole series of conflicts. And so I started to peel back the layers and I thought, maybe we should come back one more time. And by the second trip I was hooked and realized that this was a much more complicated story, a challenging story and that it needed to be followed over a period of time. And that’s what I tried to follow over several years. How do we get underneath this conflict and find out what’s really going on? What are the causes? What’s making people so angry and what’s making them afraid?
POV: How would you describe The Fire Next Time?
O’Neill: The Fire Next Time is a story about a deeply divided town. And over several years we look at how conflicts can become so volatile that they become dangerous. The center of the conflict in this community is the land – and deep world-view divisions over how the land should be used and who it’s for. But there are many conflicts. There are conflicts over the role of government, over the schools, over race, over identity. There are all these swirling things and in the middle of that there’s a spark. There’s the power of media. What happens when the media sparks anger and sparks fear? And what happens when anger allows us to dehumanize each other? How is fear used to silence people who know there’s a problem, but then think “I’m just going to go to work and deal with my own life?” I think all of us are so busy and so involved in our own lives. And we want to do something but we don’t know how.
I think in The Fire Next Time, you see what happens when people stop listening to each other, when they stop hearing each other. And how quickly we can become enemies, particularly if you have the power of media repeating that there is a reason why we’re losing our jobs, that there is an enemy and they’re identifiable and they’re a person. This buildup of anger and fear can happen very quickly. I think this could happen in any town.
So, I want The Fire Next Time to be a warning. If we all do just a little something, if we all just take a few steps, maybe we can stop something really bad from happening before it’s too late.
The question is, how do we see the warning signs? How do we know that we need to pay attention? How do we know that maybe if we disagree with someone, we still need to listen to them, we still need to hear them? How can we have honest disagreements and still be neighbors and still be fellow citizens? I think that’s a deeply challenging problem for the whole country.
POV: Talk about your stylistic choices in making the film.
O’Neill: I tried to let the characters carry the narrative, but I figured out that I had to help tell this story as a person who was trying to understand what was going on in the town. So I have a voice in it. In many ways I felt like this film was a project that we did together, that I made this with the people in this town. Obviously most of them are very, very brave people. They were brave to speak on camera. But they’re also brave in their own community. It’s a small town and you get called out if you stand up. I really felt like I was doing this with them and I hope that I honor their willingness to speak with me and to tell their story with this film.
I think there’s another character that’s so obvious, but doesn’t necessarily get to speak — and that’s the landscape. It’s a huge part of the conflict and I tried to convey that in the film. This is what people are fighting about. Look at this. Look at this place. It’s incredibly beautiful. Part of the reason people are fighting is they all want to protect it. They all believe in it. They all love it. They just have very different views about how that should be done.
POV: How did you choose the townspeople that became the main characters in the film?
O’Neill: Brenda Kitterman, who was the ex-cop who first called us, is a compelling character because she’s very brave. And initially she was probably the central character, but as the story unfolded I realized that she wasn’t the only player in this.
It’s really hard to tell the story of a town in a documentary. How do you do that? There are so many forces at play. So eventually we had to find the right people to represent some of the challenges in this town. Who were the characters that could show us how the conflicts were playing out? So there emerged this group of characters. But from my point of view, the town really tells the story.
POV: How did you establish trust with the townspeople?
O’Neill: Lucky for me almost everyone who I talked to had seen “Not In Our Town,” or knew about the work. And so there was some trust there, because they’d seen previous work and they said, “Okay, this is what she’s going to do.” Of course, this is a very different documentary than “Not In Our Town”. I think the reason people trusted me is that I realized pretty quickly that this is a story that we’re all going to tell together. Of course, someone has to interpret it. That’s the role of the filmmaker. But I really did feel like in order for this to be successful, I had to really listen to people and try to let go of my own perspective — and really hear them. And I think that’s why so many people made themselves vulnerable and poured their hearts out to the camera.
POV: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
O’Neill: How do you make this really complicated story seem simple? How do you tell the story of the effects of strife on a whole community when the audience is only going to identify with a few people? The Fire Next Time is not a television special where you spoon-feed the audience and say: “Okay, think about this. Okay, now this happened and this happens next.” It really makes an audience work, because life makes us work. Conflict and democracy make us work. And if we don’t look at things and try to interpret them, we just get lazy. We might as well just go shopping. But I think it was hard to know how much I could challenge the audience with this film. How much could I leave for them to interpret?
POV: What are your thoughts about the Flathead Valley? What impressions do you hope viewers will come away with?
O’Neill: If there are people who see the Flathead Valley in this film and say, “Oh, this is a scary place. I wouldn’t want to go there,” they’re really missing the point of this film.
I love the valley. I would probably move there if I thought I could make a living there. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I’ve met some of the best people in my entire life there. It’s just that it’s troubled. But the country is troubled. And what’s amazing to me is that this community has been willing to look at itself and to examine itself. And if you have troubles, that’s the best scenario you can be in; let’s look at them and let’s look at them together. That’s what’s been inspiring to me about this place.
POV: What was your greatest satisfaction in making this film?
O’Neill: I see The Fire Next Time as a warning: Pay attention before it’s too late. But what was most satisfying to me was taking the film back to the community and showing it there. (See video clips from the Kalispell Community Screening in Talking Back).
It’s tough to look at the kinds of challenges that people in this town are facing. Not only do people respond and say, “Yeah, I see that,” they came up with these incredibly creative ways to deal with the problem. If there can be a [happy] ending to a film that’s a warning, it’s that many people saw the film and said, “Now what do we do?” And I’m hoping that happens in communities across the country when they see this film.
POV: How has the experience of making this film changed you?
O’Neill: This film has changed me dramatically. I don’t really believe in the other side anymore. I don’t think that there’s another side. I think there is a whole group of sides and that as people we often get labeled, “Oh, you’re a blue, you’re a red, you’re a soccer mom, you’re a NASCAR dad, you’re a whatever.” You think “X” because that’s your label. And I think that’s because we don’t listen to each other anymore. We allow the media to interpret who we are. And I learned so much by just stopping and really listening. And I’m hoping that it can help me interpret whatever comes next for me in the world.
POV: Who do you want to see this film?
O’Neill: In The Fire Next Time there is a minister who talks about the salt people, the people in the community who are the good citizens, and how they need to step up to the plate. And I think that’s really all of us. I think that we all want to do something when our towns are in trouble. But we don’t know what to do. We don’t know how to tackle it.
I guess what I would hope is that a much larger group of people watch this film and say “Yeah, I need to participate, I need to be active, I need to be aware, I need to try to understand what’s going on.”
POV: What do you want viewers of the film to come away with after watching it?
O’Neill: I hope people see The Fire Next Time and decide to pay attention. I hope that they don’t see this as an isolated problem in northwest Montana. This is a problem for the whole country. How do we deal with the warning signs and the dangers? What do we do now to deal with a fire next time?
What happens in Kalispell is that there are partisans on one side or the other who are very active and they’re very loud. And the people in between may feel one way or the other, may sympathize with one side or the other, or both many times, but they’re silenced. They’re silenced because they don’t want to be involved in the yelling, they don’t want to put themselves out there. They don’t feel partisan in the same way. But their disengagement is creating this volatile chasm. So how do you get those people who care about their community but maybe aren’t so partisan involved in this discussion and this debate? That’s who I hope sees the film, that’s who I hope becomes engaged by “The Fire Next Time.”
I think the film offers an incredible opportunity for communities to deal with their own conflicts, to look at this film and say, here’s what happened here, what warnings signs do we see from this film that we might see in our own communities? What can we do to prepare? What can we do to ameliorate some of the danger and deal with some of these divisions? How can we listen to each other in a new way so our divisions and these conflicts don’t become really volatile? And I hope that’s what happens — that people take it into their own communities and interpret it in their own way, depending on what’s happening there. There are so many communities, particularly in the West, that are growing rapidly and people feel an incredible sense of loss and anger over what’s happening to their towns. How do they deal with that? How do they grapple with it? I think there are important lessons to be learned from this community.
POV: What about teachers? What do you think students can learn from this film?
O’Neill: I hope it sparks a discussion about labeling and about what happens when we label each other and we put each other in a box. What does that do to us as people and how does that become dangerous? I hope that it also sparks a discussion over interpreting media and thinking critically about what we hear in the media and the importance of trying to get a number of sources instead of just one, so that you can make a more informed evaluation of what’s really going on in a situation. And I hope ultimately it makes us talk about how we can listen to each other in a more effective way. How do we hear each other and learn about our differences, so that we don’t see each other as enemies but remember to see each other as neighbors?
POV: As a filmmaker, why do you choose documentary to tell stories?
O’Neill: I always think real people are at least as interesting as any kind of fiction. And I couldn’t have invented a more dramatic scenario or a more wonderful group of people to tell a story about conflicts that I care deeply about. [The story is] about democracy and about how we function in a democracy. And I think that story is best told from real people who are living it and struggling with [these questions]. How do we get along? How do we have a community life where we all get together? Where we can all actually function in a way that allows our country to continue as a democracy?
POV What advice would you give a first-time filmmaker?
O’Neill: I think that you should try to be as honest and open with the people you’re talking to as possible and really listen to them. And try not to just look for the sound bite that projects your point of view, but be willing to look more deeply into a story. It becomes so much richer if you allow yourself to follow it and not just have it all painted out before you begin.
POV What is powerful to you about the documentary genre?
O’Neill: I always wanted to tell stories about people like my family. I grew up in a working class community and I never saw anybody like us on TV. There was nobody like us. Pretty early in my career I started making films about working people. We’re not really in films unless we’re trailer trash. I think there’s incredible power in bringing voices that we don’t often hear in the media to the television screen — and to hear them firsthand from real people. And I think what happens with television is that you put someone on a television screen and their thoughts become more real. And I think that’s really unfortunate and kind of scary. But there’s an incredible power to film and I want to bring the power that I have to ordinary people and to let their voices come out in a new way and to honor those voices.
POV What’s the best thing about being a documentary filmmaker?
O’Neill: You get to go around the country and talk to people about their lives. Some of my favorite places have been really small towns that you would never go for vacation, but you go and you open up the door on this world that you never would have seen and you talk to people about their lives and what they care about. It’s an incredible gift.
POV What are you working on now?
O’Neill: We’re doing a new “Not In Our Town” documentary that really does focus on hate violence and community response to hate violence. In a way, when we started The Fire Next Time, we thought we were doing a straightforward story about this community responding to a domestic terror cell. It turned into a much more complicated story than that. But we’re continuing now with a new “Not In Our Town” documentary and I think what I learned from The Fire Next Time has helped us create a new series where we really look at polarization and where we look at what’s dividing us — getting under this values issue and having people talk about their differences in an honest way. So I’m excited about that.
I learned so much in the process of making The Fire Next Time because I had to walk in and listen to people who I thought I didn’t agree with, who I thought, “Ah, they’re the other side. I’m not sure I can hear them.” And I learned an incredible amount.
I don’t ever want to see the world that way again. I think that if people let you into their lives at that level and you really listen to them, you can’t dehumanize them. And I think we get that way with each other. There isn’t really a way for us to do that in the media anymore. We increasingly say, “If you believe this, watch this channel, if you believe this, watch this channel. If you’re young, watch this channel. If you like this kind of music, watch this channel.”
And so there’s very little opportunity for us to have a conversation with each other about what we care about. We’re just put into different categories and separated. I would love to do a show where a whole variety of [people with different] perspectives examine our values and what we care about in one show. We all hear each other in one show. You don’t have to switch the channel, [you get] all [perspectives] in one show. So that’s the next project, hopefully.