Filmmakers’ Diary: Why are we making this film?

By Story of America Team

In six years of collaboration, this is the first time I’ve uploaded a video of Annabel Park and me discussing our work. The night before, we had watched a classic documentary by Ross McElwee called Sherman’s March, and, as Annabel was dropping me off at the airport, we began a conceptual exchange about our new film, Story of America. Annabel came up with a new idea that I thought worth recording. 

I didn’t have a camera on me, but I turned on the voice recorder on my iPhone while she completed her thought. Then when we arrived at the terminal, I turned on the video function and asked her to say it again.

As you hear in the longer version of this video, Annabel was born in South Korea and immigrated to Texas with her family when she was 9 years old. She says that her experience finding her identity in America has been a creative process — learning, observing, spending a lot of time being confused, and finally realizing that identity construction in America has often been a creative process. In this video, and going forward, perhaps, in our film, Annabel connects her personal search for identity in America to a centuries-long struggle to find our shared identity as a nation.

One of the goals of our new film is to uncover the sources of division in America, and do something to counter them. In my view, much of the division can be attributed to bifurcated historical narratives (north vs. south, essentially) regarding slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement, and the election of our first African American president.

For instance, we sat down with Rev. Dr. William Barber in Durham, NC and learned about his Third Reconstruction historical framing. He believes a modern-day fusion politics (a union of progressive whites and people of color) is what America needs in order to fulfill the promise of its founding ideals. In contrast, we talked to Diane Rufino, leader of the Eastern North Carolina Tea Party, who was born in New Jersey but has adopted a Confederate version of American history to go with her conservative political beliefs. Annabel and I both found this fascinating.

Annabel’s theory is that the north-vs-south division is a narrative that, while certainly based in reality, is a only a surface layer that obfuscates deeper layers of reality. She will write her own blog about this, but as I read it, she is saying:

The underlying division, discontent, and confusion in America flows from political corruption and economic inequality. Those who benefit from the corruption and inequality exploit our inability to come to terms with conflicting historical and cultural narratives and find a common identity as a people.

This, in a nutshell, is why she is so interesting in achieving unity through dialogue and storytelling, and you can see Annabel finding the language to express this in this video.

Another thing I like about the video is the non-chronological ending. By putting the beginning at the end, I am trying to share with you a familiar feeling for documentary filmmakers — when you’ve missed an important moment and are trying desperately to replicate it. In this case, though, I did have an audio recording of the precious gem that I wanted to recapture, and in the last 40 seconds of the video, you get to hear what that was. Again, I paraphrase:

One possible remedy for the conflicting identities that divide America is learning about as many of them as possible, and sharing what we find, so that more of us are expansive and creative in defining America, and less of us are limited by our own experiences.

Click here for a longer version of this video.