By Edward Shore
Postcards from the Great Divide is an online documentary film series produced by leading American independent filmmakers and is part of a digital partnership between PBS’s Election 2016 initiative and The Washington Post, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Latino Public Broadcasting, with a PBS broadcast on the World Channel. Paul Stekler, a Peabody Award winning filmmaker and professor of public affairs and radio-television-film at the University of Texas, partnered with long-time collaborators Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker to explore the partisan split among the American electorate. Stekler, Alvarez, and Kolker travelled to key locations across the continental United States to study how shifting demographics and political identification will shape American politics for foreseeable future.
UT faculty, students, and alumni played key roles in writing, directing, and producing Postcards from the Great Divide. Miguel Alvarez, a lecturer in Radio, Television, and Film Department in the Moody College of Communication, directed The Giant Still Sleeps, a short film examining low Latino turnout in Texas. The film also featured UT undergraduates Lucy Kreutz (editor), Rachel Ecklund (producer), and E.J. Enriquez (cinematographer). The Big Sort, a short film exploring the ideological divide between rural areas and cities in Minnesota, was directed by Heather Courtney, a graduate of Radio, Television, and Film’s MFA program. Courtney was joined by fellow RTF alum Deborah Eve Lewis (cinematographer) and undergraduate film student Karen Skloss (editor). Thinking in Public caught up with Paul Stekler to talk about Postcards from the Great Divide and its impact on his own research and teaching.
How did the idea for Postcards from the Great Divide come about?
More and more short films are becoming accessible to wider public, because of their ability to stream. I thought it would be interesting to do something about politics in the United states that didn’t have anything to do with presidential politics per se..but investigated dynamics to determine outcome in elections. We have incredible new access to short documentaries…the New York Times op docs, New Yorker, Vanity fair… there are all sorts of outlets that are putting out short docs for viewing online, and so I thought it would be neat to do something similar. That is, to look at politics at the state level in a way that is not necessarily tied to the presidential election. We got to explore important questions, such as “Why do latinos vote or not vote in the state of Texas? What is key to black turnout in Florida? How did Wisconsin become so split on ideological lines? How is it that the Republic Party is taking over state legislature after legislature, including in Washington state, which is considered a solid blue state? This has been so much fun to executive produce and to farm out the filmmaking to young filmmakers from those states who are tied to the subject. It was an interesting challenged. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting really liked the series, especially because it’s online. We’ve already released eight of our nine postcards. Our next one is about Nebraska and it comes out on October 24.
Did you get feedback from viewers? If so, did people respond the way you thought they would?
It’ s hard to know, really. I don’t have an email address associated with the project. We get a fairly decent amount of hits and everyone I’ve talked to who has seen it says they enjoyed. Our donors are delighted with it at the Corporation for Pubic Broadcasting and the Washington Post. They think they are great pieces. How many people are watching? It’s hard to say, really. I had friends tell me that 260,000 people have retweeted our videos. How many actually watch the videos, I don’t know. But we are coordinating with the Washington Post to reach a half a million people in our next video. This is a brave new world in terms of doing these short online films and it has been extremely enjoyable to create something about the politics below the Trump and Clinton campaign circus.
What has surprised you most about conversations between people on different sides of the political spectrum? Where do you see common ground, compromise, and mutual understanding, if at all?
Nothing. (Laughter). I’ve been looking at politics for a long time. What is surprising is how hard it is to make these shorts films. They are short but they are certainly not easy to make. It’s very difficult to make vignettes with substance and context and not just voices on camera. In terms of the conversations between political opponents…I’ve travelled the country researching politics for thirty years and it feels like we are more split than ever before.
Does the series have an impact on your own research and teaching? In other words, are there scholarly benefits from public scholarship?
I’ve been assigning my students to produce short documentaries here at UT for the last twenty years. I’m a long form documentary filmmaker who has taught short filmmaking for a while now and it’s been fun to go back to the short format. I think the more that I make short films, the better I can teach it. It gives me an appreciation for how difficult this is as an art form.
Anything else to add? What do you plan to do after the election is over?
Resting. Honestly, though, it’s been a real delight. I’m really excited about the animation in the beginning of the short films and the music. It has been so much fun to oversee younger filmmakers who I really respect, as well as collaborate again with Louis Alvarez and Andy Kolker. I met them in 30 years ago in New Orleans and we’ve made a number of films together over the years. I learned a lot about being an executive producer this time. It’s great to make short films because it lets you get out in the field again, even in an election that is so bizarre and often unpleasant. It’s always interesting when I get to see places that I never would get to see otherwise, places like Nebraska and Kentucky, the Fancy Farm Picnic where they serve thousands of pounds of meat on a stage while Republicans and Democrats scream at each other. I love politics and this was a different challenge and a different type of filmmaking and I like to do new things like this to keep myself in the game. In the end, it makes me a better teacher.