When Sierra Pettengill and Jamila Wignot set out to document the tea party phenomenon in early 2010, they had no idea whether the movement would last another two months, let alone two years. It did, of course, and they were there to capture it on film as the ragtag grassroots activists got organized and evolved through the ecstasy of the 2010 midterm to the agony of defeat two years later.
Their new documentary, “Town Hall,” screening Wednesday at the DOC NYC film festival in New York City, follows the lives of two activists, both from purple Pennsylvania, but from different strains of the movement.
Katy Abram is a young mother and political novice who suddenly gets thrust into the spotlight after her confrontation with the late Sen. Arlen Specter goes viral, leading to cable news appearances and a job with Americans for Prosperity, a national tea party group. John Stahl, a lifelong Republican activist and former state legislator from a depressed mill town, starts his own tea party group while struggling to care for his ailing mother without putting her on public assistance.
There is no voice over, no statistics, no argument, and only one question from the directors. The result is a deeply informed piece of cinéma vérité that challenges pre-existing views of the tea party movement by presenting an intimate and compassionate — if not entirely flattering — portrait of its two main characters. The following conversation with the filmmakers is edited for brevity and clarity.
What made you want to make a documentary about the tea party?
Pettengill: We were looking from some in-depth coverage of what was really happening here, and weren’t really finding it in the shallow news coverage. We wanted a long-term, in-depth exploration of who these people were, where they were coming from, and what their lives were like, and we thought the way to do that was to follow them for several years in a really intimate way.
When did you first meet Katy?
Wignot: We initially wanted people from across the country, but then found Katy’s now-infamous rant. For her to go, in 30 seconds, from anonymous novice to new face of this movement was very interesting to us. We first met her in May of 2010, filming started that summer, and then followed her through November of last year and edited until February of 2013.
Pettengill: When we started the film, we didn’t know what would happen. Maybe the tea party will die in two months, and then the rest of the film will be like, what does Katy do next?
You’re two filmmakers from Brooklyn, which suggests to me you’re not exactly tea partiers yourselves. What changed about your views of the tea party in making this film?
Wignot: What I realized that the movement was more than about any specific policy, it was about a deep uncertainty about America’s standing. We all felt it in the wake of this financial collapse, but it was kind of the last straw for some. They feel their values were being supplanted by something unknown and feel like they are being pushed aside. It’s a sense that their Americanness is jeopardy.
Pettengill: In that uncertainty, there’s an amazing sense of identity and security that comes from being engaged and feeling like you can make a difference in the most important issues of the day. Both Katy and John get a lot out of their political activity. It’s almost like a hobby, but better. You could join the quilting bee, or you could feel like you were altering the course of history. What could be a more satisfying use of your time?
Do liberals fundamentally misunderstand the tea party? Do you ever find yourself defending them?
Pettengill: The racism charge. It’s not so simple that Obama is black and that’s the source of everything. Obama is a symbol of all the changes that have happened in this country and how the nation no longer looks or feels like the one that is familiar to them, so there is obviously race involved, but that’s the thing I spend the most time adding nuance to.
What was the reaction from Katy and John?
Wignot: Katy really enjoyed it, but there are parts that are uncomfortable for her, like watching her views do a 180 on Mitt Romney. That’s difficult, especially for a women who’s really committed to her principles.
As for John, the last we heard from him was the phone call we show it the film the day after Election Day 2012, when he refused to meet with us. After the loss, he became extremely pessimistic about the direction of the country and thinks we’re heading towards another civil war. We tried calling, wrote notes, anything we could think of to regain contact with him, but heard nothing back.
Pettengill: John’s experience is a real bellwether. Demographic shifts are part of what’s causing this deep anxiety, and being in the community where John lives, you can begin to understand it. Reading was a fairly middle-class manufacturing town and became poorest city in the county while we were filming there, and it’s becoming majority Hispanic.
Where do you think the tea party goes from here?
Wignot: There is a kind of liberal sense that this will all go away and that this doesn’t matter, but the forces behind it — demographic shifts, economic uncertainty — aren’t going anywhere, and for the foreseeable future, it’s going to continue.
Pettengill: You can’t just fact check them out of existence. Part of their success is just the amount of time, work, and dedication they put into it. I just don’t know people on the left who are comparable. And that gives them a big influence. We captured a moment of national transition. We hope this film can live on as a way to look at what things look like as they shift.
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