Ben Rekhi's new documentary, The Reunited States, narrates the stories of American citizens who have dedicated their lives to depolarisation
The film opens with the lines ‘Our country is very divided right now. We aren’t really getting at the root causes. We are seeing a dehumanising of everyone who opposes us. Polarisation is in our hearts.’ These words, spoken by the protagonists of the film, could be about any country because there is a sense of universality in these lines, and perhaps this is a reason why The Reunited States is one of the most-awaited documentary films of the year.
Shot in America, featuring citizens of the country who are trying to bridge divisions in society, the documentary is directed by well-known filmmaker Ben Rekhi and produced by Raj Krishna. The narrative is a deeply moving portrait of unsung heroes who have dedicated their lives to depolarisation and bipartisanship. At a time when the world is going through a crisis that’s united us all, The Reunited States highlights political polarisation that divides most countries.
A mother’s fight
Ben, who has earlier made feature films such as Waterborne and The Ashram, and Watch List (which highlighted the drug mafia issue in the Philippines), has made this documentary because he felt this was the need of the hour. “The way I approach material now is by looking at its urgency. What are those stories that are most pressing and will help us make sense of our world. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s this purpose that really drives me to choose subjects,” explains the filmmaker. The idea for The Reunited States occurred to Ben when he was watching one of the featured people, Susan Bro, speak about her daughter, Heather Heyewr, who was killed during the Charlottesville car attack (2017). Heather was one of the several people who were part of the ‘Unite the Right’ rally and were peacefully protesting. “Susan had lost her daughter but instead of disappearing into her grief, or becoming angry, encouraging people to attack each other, she took the public stage and said we need to see and hear each other better, if we are going to move forward. I found it so profound, when I saw her speak in person. I approached her and said her wisdom could help a lot of people who are scared and angry about politics and if she would let me tell her story. She allowed me to follow her for the Charlottesville anniversary and that was the beginning of the film,” reveals Ben.
Each his own
The other people who feature in this film are independent politician Greg Orman, who believes the way to break the gridlock of the two-party system is to run as an independent politician; Steven Olikara, the son of Indian immigrants from Kerala, who founded the Millennial Action Project and works tirelessly to build a coalition of bipartisan lawmakers to transform the American government and David Leaverton, a former Republican operative and his wife Erin, who are on a journey across all 50 states in an RV to find out what is causing our divisions and how to heal from them. With four different storylines, Ben says it was quite a challenging journey to piece it all together. “This is my first documentary and it’s a very different medium from fiction. For fiction, you first write the script and then shoot, here’s it’s the opposite. With multiple narratives, it felt like shooting four documentaries at once. The desire to do multiple storylines was to show that there is not one solution but there are many different ways of solving the issue. It was an 18-month edit, we had multiple editors working on it. We edited each storyline and then when we had a beginning, middle and end for each, we put them all together. Although the film is about a pressing issue, it had to be engaging and entertaining, so the most challenging part was to find that emotional arc for the audience to hold onto,” offers Ben.
While thinking of a title for the documentary, the filmmaker thought of ‘Reunited States’, but he is quick to confess that he felt someone else would have definitely thought of this smart play of words. “I felt it was too catchy and clever. So when I Googled it, it led me to Mark Gerzon’s book (The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide) which also explored the subject I was dealing with. Mark has been studying issues of bipartisanship and bridging the divide for 30 years, his wisdom was all of a sudden becoming very crucial in our times. I met him and he introduced me to the other storylines (apart from Susan’s),” explains the director. The film is slated to release in India on an OTT platform later this year, and the filmmaker hopes The Reunited States instills courage and hope in people’s hearts. “I really want to give people hope, that there is a way to find a path together. Media can divide people but it can also unite them. There are a lot of incentives for divisions, hence conflict and drama sell. Political parties are bent on winning elections, the more attention they get, they fuel passion but this is not reflective of the entire population,” he signs off.