Two Years With the Tea Party

What happens when two Brooklyn filmmakers spend 30 months documenting the lives of tea-party activists? The answer may surprise you.

A still from the new documentary "Town Hall."
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Nov. 18, 2013, 9:31 a.m.

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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