Capturing ‘American Voices’ in a Year of Turmoil


ROD BORBA: I hope it's wrong, but I see too many comments by too many people. I feel a revolution coming. It's getting closer every day. Somebody's going to be dumb enough to fire the first shot and we're going to have some serious problems. I hope I'm wrong.


RANEY ARONSON: Americans in a deeply divided country have faced a year of unrest and anxiety.


TAYO DANIEL: We're just like, man, this is crazy. We're already fighting a common terror, which is COVID. And now this now?


ARONSON: Throughout 2020, a team of independent filmmakers in communities across the U.S. have been documenting how people are living through this moment. 


AMY GARNER: You can’t do one size fits all. You can't shut everybody in. You can’t make healthy people wear masks. 


ARONSON: A glimpse of this ongoing effort can be seen in FRONTLINE’s post-election special, “American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil.” 


MARK CURTIS: I think our culture's going to stay divided. The division that has been created here recently is going to take generations to recover. I think our culture is going to be horribly scarred by this.


ARONSON: In this episode of the Dispatch, filmmaker Mike Shum and his producing partner, Dr. Blair Woodbury join me to discuss the ambitious project. 


I'm Raney Aronson, and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch.


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism, and by the WGBH Catalyst Fund. Support for The FRONTLINE Dispatch also comes from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Early detection is key to catching and treating many cancers. You can learn more about the innovative programs at mass-general-dot-org-slash-cancer. Mass General Cancer Center: Everyday amazing. 


ARONSON: Hey, Mike and Blair, thanks for joining me on the dispatch.


  1. BLAIR WOODBURY: Thanks for having us. 


MIKE SHUM:  Yeah, thank you. 


RANEY ARONSON: So Mike, at FRONTLINE, and in so many other places, we like to say that every good story has a once upon a time, and I know that this project in particular has a great origin story, will you just launch in and tell us how this started?


MIKE SHUM: It really started at the beginning of the lockdown in March. And I remember, to try to be perfectly honest, that I was sort of mentally preparing myself for it. I had bought some espresso, I have several books of poetry that I was ready to just dive into and just enjoy. And then I get a phone call from Blair. And he posed the idea of what it meant to capture this moment for the next several months. And I thought he was joking, but in reality, he wasn't. And so now we're here. Yeah.


ARONSON: Blair, what were you thinking? And what did you think when you said capture this moment? What were you thinking? Because I know you're a doctor, so how are you envisioning this to play out?


WOODBURY: So I was reading everything I could about past pandemics and just everything related to what we were looking at. Reading about masks, reading about coronaviruses, reading about infection prevention, just in more detail than I had previously. And I was reading John Barry's book on the great influenza of 1918 to just see what people did 100 years ago, there had to be useful lessons. And there were. But there were also these big gaps. And so I was trying to find photos from the era just to kind of see how, how people coped, if people distance what kind of masks they were using, where they were, or were not used. And just to see if there were little tips and tricks of everyday life, that we were kind of missing out on because they weren't recorded very well. So when I was talking to Mike, I was thinking, there are these giant gaps in our understanding of things that just people living their day to day lives figured out 100 years ago. And documentary filmmaking seemed like a great way to fill in some of those gaps. And I thought, this isn't the last pandemic the modern world is going to encounter. So producing some sort of more comprehensive historical document of that would be useful.


ARONSON: So Blair and Mike, you guys know each other for a long time now. So tell us about, where did your friendship start?


SHUM: It began at Colorado College. We both went to undergrad there. It's a small liberal arts college in Colorado Springs that fosters a degree of imagination and sort of intellectual adventure, I guess. And I think that's just carried on over the years. But specifically, I believe, I invited Blair to go to the rock climbing wall together, one fine day, and then the sparks ‘a flutter, I guess, I don't know.


ARONSON: Then you went on your career paths, you became a doctor Blair. Just tell us what kind of doctor you are and where you practice.


WOODBURY: I practice emergency medicine in Reno, Nevada. And I've spent most of the last five years or so practicing medicine in smaller, more rural emergency departments.


ARONSON: And, Mike, you know, we've worked with you before on the “Predator on the Reservation” film and also you’re a cinematographer. Talk to me about when Blair called you, you know, what went through your mind to make that into a reality?


SHUM: This is gonna be hard to explain. But generally speaking with any film or any sort of endeavor, I start with fear. I'm pretty, I'm a very fearful person, but what I like is the process of dissipating that fear with understanding and so when I was talking with Blair, like everyone, it was unknown to us the impact of the pandemic, across the country and also to personal health. It was, it was, honestly it was just terrifying and the idea of going out and pursuing stories, because between us, Blair and me, we both knew and felt or at least I definitely didn't enjoy, I guess, the Zoom kind of approach. I think it was important for us to get close to the people who are out there, but also do that safely. And so that's where many conversations with Blair about, you know, what certain news crews were doing in Wuhan, for example, what he knew about the virus and transmission, and what were our ethical boundaries to uphold as we were moving around, and who we would recruit to work with us and why.


ARONSON: Right, right. But how did you do that? I mean, I know we started talking to you, right as you're starting to film with the pastor. And I remember the conversation we had pretty vividly and you said, you know, “Listen, there's a ton of us all across the country shooting in different communities.” So how did you manage to get all of these filmmakers to really believe in this idea enough to start shooting in the middle of a pandemic? I mean, what did you do? How did that happen?


SHUM: It feels like ages ago. Just thinking about that, as you asked that question.


ARONSON: I know, it is ages ago I mean we really lived through something. Yeah. Take us back to that. I know that you had all these people do it. But how?


SHUM: Blair, correct me if I'm wrong, because my memory is a little all over the place. But it started, it did start looking at places and people who were not as fond of the lockdown. And we wanted to sort of get a sense of what that meant to them and who they were. And then from there, we sort of designed a, just a basic plan of like, “Look, we just, we are interested in tapping into the curiosity of our cinematographers in their localities, especially at this time.” And then basically, you know, at least for me, when I was talking with various cinematographers, I sort of treated it like therapy, where I basically said, “Look, for me, I'm interested in seeing what this pastor is going through, because I don't know what we're going through. And I think we're just going to sort of wade into the collective unknown together.” And in that the cinematographers felt, yeah, they felt that too. But it turned out to be that many people understood why we needed to cover this moment in the way we're doing it. And I would quickly say, from the get go, “We have a doctor who's working with me to give you a better sense of what it means to go out there and do so safely.” And we had restrictions too, because when I would go into conversations with each cinematographer, one of our red lines was, if they were in consistent contact with someone who would be perceived as at-risk, whether that's pre-existing condition or an age group of some kind, we would basically say, “This won't work.” Mostly because the last thing we want to do was be a transmission point for the virus as a result of the filming.


ARONSON: Right, and at FRONTLINE, we've been dealing with that across all of our productions. I would love to hear, before we get into the safety aspects, I'd love to hear, Blair, when Mike started to talk to you about different filmmakers across the country. Did you guys actually put your heads together to think about like, “Okay, we want to make a major feature film,” or were you more in the mode of, “We just need to start capturing this and we'll see what happens.”


WOODBURY: I think it was much more, let's see what happens. We had some ideas for what we thought might happen. But something that, that I think we both recognized right away was, the story is way more complicated than we had appreciated, we thought that it was going to be kind of this binary between people who were sheltering in place, and people who didn't think that that was a good idea. And we found that that was not the case, just right off the bat, we found that it is a spectrum. And everyone draws the line in a different place with all different aspects of daily life and public life. And so it is not a binary at all. We realized pretty early on, that this is not going to be a really simple narrative of like good guys and bad guys. These people were wrong, these people were right. It was going to be just following humans as they navigate this, and I wanted to see how people made those small decisions.


ARONSON: Yeah, I mean, that was what was really remarkable. And why, you know, we really, really started to believe in the idea was that we found that your characters, the ones that Mike and the team found, were really actually quite nuanced in their approach. I mean, even people who believed in not wearing masks, you know, the reasoning behind it was it was so surprising, not that I necessarily agreed with them. But that was one of the beauties of the characters that you guys chose. So let's talk safety. Would you guys dive in and talk to me about how you did approach the safety of not only the people you were covering, but also the crews?


WOODBURY: Of course, I was not coming up with this stuff on my own at all, like I was mostly just paraphrasing what other people had said, and like the guidelines I was seeing in the hospital where I was working. What it seemed like we knew in March and April was that there were facilities in China, where hundreds of health care workers had interacted with hundreds of COVID-19 patients, and found ways using careful PPE and sterilization techniques to avoid a single infection among healthcare workers. So for me, that was the sign that it's not impossible to prevent spread of this, there are precautions that can be taken that work. And I was seeing how those precautions were playing out in my hospital. And so talking to Mike about safety protocols for filmmakers, the thought was we really could mitigate risk in a reasonable way. And the CDC had released guidelines that I thought were were pretty adequate at that time, for taking those precautions like having both parties wearing a mask, which of course isn't possible when the subjects who are being filmed don't want to wear masks, and they're protesting masks, but but there was some data even at that point, years old data showing that one person wearing a mask prevents not just transmission of infection from them, but to them as well.


ARONSON: That's really interesting Blair, I mean, just knowing that earlier in the production process was key, because of course, you guys did follow a number of characters who didn't wear a mask.


SHUM: We were keeping an eye on cases as we go, because I think everyone was learning as we were going. I think that that's the part that was important. So we were able to sort of perceive these things as case studies for how we were going to approach things. I think a big turning point for us was when I believe a hair salon had two salons or is it a nail salon? I’m not sure but two salons who, the workers, two of them had COVID. And they were wearing masks. And there are many people within this in this room. And no one got infected. Yeah, so that was a big turning point for us where you say, okay, masks definitely work. And so we were making sure everyone was wearing, either disinfecting consistently or wearing gloves that they felt like they were touching their face a lot and trying to create some degree of boundary between touch to face and goggles as well, too. I mean, we were, I definitely looked a lot different in terms of my filming protocol in March, mostly because I was afraid of how this could turn out.


WOOODBURY: And Mike there were a ton of considerations that individual filmmakers were thinking about as well like stuff that hadn't been anticipated initially, things like, where to interview people. Like I remember the first time someone filmed in someone's home. That was a big conversation as to whether that was a risk worth taking. And like, you know, kind of just verbally at least screening people, for anyone in your family sick right now like, kind of assessing risk before going into those situations.


ARONSON: I do want to talk about Minneapolis, both from the COVID perspective of shooting, and the protests, but also just the killing of George Floyd. And how that really was a catalyst to the shooting that you did in the Twin Cities, Mike. So can you just launch into that?


SHUM: Yeah, that was, it was a strange day. I remember, my partner, Meyer was watching the video. And she was quickly emotional, to the point where it was clear that something awful was happening. And beyond that, she was getting messages from a lot of her friends, because I'm not originally from the Twin Cities. So I have a pretty small network here, I guess. But she was overwhelmed by a number of people looking to protest what had happened. And I think when we, when she had elected to go to this protest, you know, I was very concerned because of the idea that so many people would be coming together in one space, outdoors, albeit. But it was still concerning. So kind of went through medical, like a sort of a health and safety protocol with her. And then when we went to this protest, I mean, it was hard not to film. And to the extent that I knew so many people would be coming together. So the second we hit the ground, I was filming.


Excerpt from ‘American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil’


CROWD [chanting]: No justice no peace, prosecute the police!


MALE PROTEST SPEAKER 1: Sitting here in front of officers who are complicit in the murder of George Floyd.


MALE NEWSREADER: Thousands packed the area.


FEMALE NEWSREADER: —protesting the death of George Floyd.


MALE PROTEST SPEAKER 2: How many times have we watched police officers murder people?


ARONSON: Were you thinking, like, “Alright, we need to find characters inside this movement that will help articulate all of what they were experiencing and doing.” 


SHUM: No. I mean, that wasn't our plan. It's so interesting, because similar to what Blair had said before, we were definitely shooting from the hip where we didn't know what we were trying to capture. And I and I really did, my initial thought was to start filming, knowing fully well that we were still sort of looking at things from a COVID-19 perspective. And then, when I left the protests from that day, and saw that protesters were engaging with the third precinct, actually called Blair, kind of saying, “Oh, this is getting bigger. And, and this may not stop for a bit.” And with that, I think a lot of the cinematographers actually start to reach out and say, there's a lot coming out on our side as well, too. And for the most part, I actually pushed pause on a lot of other cinematographers, I wanted to keep everyone character-focused for the most part, but also, so many of our cinematographers were not trained in battlefield medical training or hostile environment training. And I only asked those of them who had gone through such training to be, you know, if they wanted to go out, I'd be willing to support them in that. But I wasn't interested in pushing all our cinematographers out towards the kinetic scenes that we're spreading across the country at that time. But for me, I mean, at least I wanted... Yeah, I was interested in engaging with a group that could take us through it a little bit.


ARONSON: So you decided, at a certain point, just tell me how that happened. You identified a couple of people that you decided that you would commit to for the film as well.


SHUM: Yeah, so Royce and Tayo, I'd met and knew that they were, they had gotten a lot of sort of momentum because they were just able to mobilize so many people with further marches. And they were doing this consistently. And I found that to be fascinating, I think there was something about their drive and their just ability to mobilize thousands of people that I was just curious where that came from, and how, and I felt, after my first conversation with Royce, specifically, him speaking to a very deep seated distrust for the government.


ROYCE WHITE: If you think about the historical context of Black men, Black people in this country in general, we have no reason to trust the state. In general, when we wake up in the morning, there's no good reason for us to have any faith in the state. And maybe in times where there needs to be a trust, it falls through. Yeah, maybe Black people should have more trust in the state when it comes to COVID-19, but it’s a tough sell.


SHUM: It was not that different from a lot of other characters that we have just for different reasons. And so I found the complexity and nuance and his perspective to be fascinating, and wanted to dive deeper with him through the election.


ARONSON: We’ll be back right after this message.


FUNDER: Support for the FRONTLINE Dispatch comes from Mass General Cancer Center. When facing the unknown it is often the small acts of courage we experience in our daily lives that power us to face another day. We’re all in this together.


ARONSON: You know, I want to move on to some of your other characters. I just was curious. So you guys are out with a variety of different people, variety of different points of view. I'm assuming that at times, they're expressing things that you don't agree with. I mean, for instance, you know, some oppose wearing masks, as you show in the film or, you know, others held, you know, pretty strong views on race that you probably don't agree with. So what did you do in those moments? Was it hard?


SHUM: I’ve grown to have many, many conversations with each cinematographer over this period, of really reflecting on what it means to capture these moments. And these people, and I think our interest was history, our interest was saying, “This is something that's happening, there are many people who are going to have different perspectives in this.”


ROSIE BORBA: My feelings with the Black Lives Matter is "all lives matter." 


MAYRA RAMIREZ: I saw one person who didn't have their mask on properly, and that upset me a little bit.


ROD BORBA: I personally have a problem with the mask at times. Because of my congestive heart failure there's times I'm fighting for air.


SHUM: If they're willing to invite us into their lives, to sort of document through their perspectives, what's going on, that should be the focus. Not necessarily whether I believe they're right or wrong, but very much this idea of posterity towards what this period means to us.


ARONSON: I have a really difficult question for you. But I'm hoping you can at least you know, tell me a couple of your favorite characters, people that you find you're just, you know, continue to be super curious about and can't wait to continue filming with.


SHUM: From day one I thought the pastor, he's always been inviting and welcoming to me. And he's always made sure to keep me in my camera entertained. 


PASTOR CARY GORDON: Last Sunday morning I drove past Menards. Menards is a lumberyard. Hundreds of cars. And only a quarter-mile away, my church, in contrast, I know is empty because they've said, "The church is not essential." The church is not essential. In a time of crisis with imminent death and a pandemic, the church is not essential, but Menards can stay open, someone might need to buy a screwdriver. It's offensive.


SHUM: I mean, he's a very bombastic character. And I think it's hard not to follow someone with such an ardent perspective. And yet, it's usually unclear or at least sometimes predictable what he's about to do, but then sometimes he just throws me left fielders, and I'm like, Okay, yeah, let's let's do that, too.


ARONSON: He was your first character, right? He's the first character that you started to film with as a kind of proof of concept in Iowa, right? 


SHUM: Absolutely. Yeah. No, he's the one that I sort of settled on and said, yeah, we should probably keep moving with him, and find other characters who can sort of speak to different angles outside of his perspective. And that's, you know, what influenced a lot of the other summit ographers to sort of think about who they would want to follow and why. And I think what was important to me about the pastor specifically was, I don't I don't agree with a lot of things that he stands for at the same time, I think he's not a bad person. And I enjoyed my time with him and I think that sort of helps set the stage for a lot of the cinematographers to say, “Look, there are a lot of people you'll be following that you may not agree with. But it's important to recognize them as a struggling human being, like us as we're struggling human being filmmakers.” We're trying to figure this out together. And so he challenged me in a lot of ways, but he also teaches me a lot of things as well, too. So it's been an edifying relationship.


ARONSON: What are you guys dreaming of next with these amazing people that we just briefly met?


WOODBURY: Well, this piece addressed the pandemic a little bit. But I don't feel like it really addressed, how do we kind of navigate the entire arc of it? How do people's behaviors and how do people's perspectives change through that process? And how are people's perspectives and behaviors changed by their personal experiences, as something that's an abstract idea far from them, becomes closer to home and more visceral and more real? The story of the pandemic is not just empty streets during lockdown, but it becomes stories of friends and family and colleagues and people who are personally affected by COVID-19. itself. 


ARONSON: Hmm, yeah, I like that. So that there's a longitudinal look so that you really see the longer term impact, which you will only understand by seeing the beginning, right. So Mike, are you guys hoping that you'll put together, you know, a longer form series or a big film? Are you just gonna keep filming like, what's next for you guys?


SHUM: At the moment, our focus and interest really is what happens when a vaccine is more widely available. I think a lot of our characters, and many of whom, who weren't in the FRONTLINE film, are very ardent in their opinion about whether they want to take a vaccine or not. And that really impacts the effect of this, of said vaccine. So this could be a pretty big moment in terms of how the country interacts with COVID-19.


ARONSON: I love that. That's like the next chapter. Right? I mean, I guess we have the winter ahead of us too, which will be pretty challenging for a lot of your characters and a lot of Americans but I like the idea that you could also see the you know, the challenges and then the hopeful triumphs to have the vaccines as they're rolled out.


SHUM: Definitely. Yeah, it'll be interesting to see what happens.


ARONSON: Well, you guys are the best. Thank you both so much. And thanks for working with FRONTLINE on this really extraordinary project and I wish you both the best in the future as well.


SHUM: Thank you so much, Raney.


WOODBURY: Thank you.


ARONSON: “American Voices: A Nation in Turmoil” is streaming online now at frontline-dot-org.  


Our podcast producers are Max Green and James Edwards.


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan. 


Additional production in this episode by Elizabeth Nakano [nuh-KAH-no].


Katherine Griwert [GRY-wirt] is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Our senior producer is Frank Koughan. 


Lauren Ezell and Sarah Childress are our senior editors. 


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Original music in this episode by Stellwagen Symphonette. 


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX. 

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