By Cordula Schnuer
US filmmaker Kelly Nyks travelled to Luxembourg this week to present his documentary Split: A Divided America, speaking to wort.lu/en about the journey of his road movie and the challenges US politics is facing.
Nyks' documentary takes the viewer inside the world of partisanship and the Red State Blue State mentality. Inspired by the lack of dialogue in the US presidential campaigns, Nyks set out to investigate partisan politics from coast to coast across the US.
The result is an informative documentary, which puts the issue of America's big divide at its centre, featuring experts and pundits from Noam Chomsky to Robert Putnam.
“I did not expect my first film to be a documentary,” said Nyks, who gained a Master of Fine Arts from the Actor's Studio, “but there was such pressure in that moment of American politics that the film made sense of its own accord without much prodding from me.”
Road movie meets citizen journalism
With a cross-country road trip at its core, the film was produced over a three-year period, chronicling the increasing partisanship in US politics.
“When I set out from LA I had information and an understanding of the story, but the story itself and my ability to tell it developed simultaneously. That is one of the beauties of documentary film; it demands that you allow it to develop and find a path that will invariably be different from what your pre-conceived notion was when you started.”
Unlike other popular documentary filmmakers such as Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame, Nyks takes the backseat in his journey to investigate US politics. Never openly Democrat or Republican he opens the floor to US citizens. “The partisan divide is higher now than it has been in the last 25 years,” said Nyks, “and that story was always going to be more interesting than my political experience.”
The Divided States of America
So, in how many ways can you split the 50 states? Culture, race, class, faith, media are all wrapped up in the two-party system that has seen a political stalemate of almost epic proportions with Washington going into gridlock at the end of last year and this trend continuing into 2012.
“There has been a lot of discussion about America needing a third party for change. By virtue of involving another party, that forces a greater amount of flexibility. The two-party system is largely reinforcing a corrosive discourse. As the parties have become more polarised, Obama isn't trying to get more Republicans to vote for him or vice versa. It's a question of mobilisation not persuasion. That leads to a language directed in one specific direction rather than a more coalition oriented broader style of communication.”
But where the internet could have once taken a place of offering a “robust and vital marketplace of ideas” it has added to the problem, with Facebook, Google and other platforms targeting content and adverts based on individual searches and user behaviour.
“If you're not the customer you're the product,” said Nyks referencing a popular internet meme. “If you're on Facebook you're not the customer; your behaviour is the market product. By telling us more of what they think we want to hear, the internet is narrowing and individualising even more what we're receiving. It reinforces the echo chamber we already live in, based on advertising revenue to be gained from that.”
Can virtual activism work?
While movements such as Occupy Wallstreet have gained incredible momentum online, spreading at unprecedented speed across social media platforms like Twitter to form global trends, little real change has emerged with the sit-ins and camps cleared, often violently, by the authorities within weeks or months.
“The support for Occupy was viral, but it was also virtual. There was a cap to the amount of real activism that people were going to do,” said Nyks, adding that the distance between the two was getting increasingly larger.
“These tools are only as valuable as the information you push through them. They only become robust tools for social change when there is a meaningful amount of content that sees real action,” said Nyks.
“We fool ourselves to think that change comes from clicking a 'like' button or retweeting a slogan. It does ultimately come from that lunch counter sit-in. You have to have that type of commitment to these issues to see the change that has the generational kind of impact we are looking for.”
We are at the crossroads now to decide which chord to strike, according to Nyks. And while it is easy to get “disheartened and disillusioned about the direction that all this is taking, the silver lining is that when things get dire, people ultimately respond.”