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Story The Recorder August 18, 2018

Hands Across the Hills Going Global

A meeting of one of the facilitated discussions between Massachusetts and Kentucky participants of Hands Across the Hills. Image by Chana Rose Rabinovitz. Massachusetts, 2017.

Can a “liberal” New England college community and a “conservative” coal-mining Kentucky county’s...

German documentary  director Jörg Daniel Hissen mets with Leverett, Mass. group members. Image by Frank Lehmann. United States, 2018.
German documentary director Jörg Daniel Hissen mets with Leverett, Mass. group members. Image by Frank Lehmann. United States, 2018.

LEVERETT—A European television crew is focusing on this town's efforts to bridge the cultural divide as it produces a documentary about the divisions in U.S. politics and culture.

The hour-long documentary, being produced by ARTE TV, a German-French arts and cultural network, brought to town a two-man crew last week for a round of filming in preparation for a program that's scheduled to air just before the November midterm elections.

"The subject is big, and getting bigger every day," said director Jörg Daniel Hissen, who was in Leverett for three days of filming in Leverett last week, coincidentally as the anniversary of last year's Charlottesville, Va., riots was in the news along with plans for a second "Unite the Right" white supremacy demonstration and counter-demonstrations over the weekend.

Hissen, an independent documentary filmmaker who has made numerous other films in the country exploring cultural differences, was drawn to Leverett along with cameraman Frank Lehmann because of the grassroots Hands Across the Hills project last year to create a dialogue with residents in Letcher County, Ky., to explore cultural and political differences and commonalities in the aftermath of the 2016 elections. Both communities engaged in exchanges last October and this April that centered around in-depth conversations led by intercultural specialist Paula Green.

Those discussions, says Hissen, will form the central thread of his film, along with interviews exploring racism, immigration and other issues.

"We're telling the story of the populism that's growing in the U.S., climaxing with Trump and the division of the country politically but also socially," he says of the film, which will be presented in German and French to ARTE's audience of 10 million viewers following 14 filming and 16 editing days. "Many people in Europe are worried about the U.S. and President Trump, about where that will all lead to. Obviously, in Europe, we face in a way similar problems with unified Europe and with immigrants."

Hissen, who is in Whitesburg, Ky., through Wednesday, along with Green and HATH member Sharron Dunn of Leverett filming members of the Letcher County group who invited the Massachusetts group of about 15 in April, also filmed in this country in May. That filming included interviews with "Culture Wars" author James Hunter from the Institute of Cultural Studies in Charlottesville, with Ta-Nehisi Coates in Baltimore, "What's the Matter with Kansas" author Thomas Frank and humanities professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University, who told him about the Leverett-Kentucky project.

The director, who is from Hamburg but attended high school in Portland, Oregon, also filmed in Youngstown, Ohio, Baltimore, Md., and filmed interviews with New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters and others on topics ranging from America's "rust belt" to "fake news" and the social media.

Hissen said that in addition to talking to "the experts," he wanted to find "a case study, real people. (I knew) there are people who are worried, or irritated, by the 2016 election who feel, 'We have to do something. My hope is to make visible the division. I'm trying better to understand what are the worries of these people in these regions."

Filming in Leverett included a discussion with participants of the Hands Across the Hills group, which grew out of a broader grassroots Leverett Alliance, and a visit with the town's Selectboard at Town Hall and a trip to the Leverett Peace Pagoda.

"In the end are we only talking about social issue?" Hissen asks. "Is it a class war, about people who feel forgotten, about 'the American dream' no longer being valid, that you don't have a safe job and can put your kids in college so your kids will have it better than you? Which is big turning point."

Hissen, who said he only focused on the East Coast of this country for budgetary reasons, said he hopes to also use available footage of from last year's Charlottesville confrontation as well as protests in Portland, Oregon, earlier this month and others around the country to engage a European audience that he says is watching intently, trying to understand what is happening here.

At home, he said, Europeans were shocked by the Brexit vote and the Trump election, which at first they didn't take seriously, hoping it was a problem that would soon pass.

"We would have never thought that would be possible," he said. "For Europeans, it's really hard to understand President Trump, and that makes them worried, because he seems more like a deal-maker than a politician, and it's pretty crucial in way he does these things. He seems to destroy so many international treaties that will be very hard to be repair. And at the same time, he's playing with fire, with all these things he's doing in Iran. All of this can lead to almost war, or major, major problems. That's what people are worried about, wishing for stability. Every day, you feel what's coming next? Can it get worse? No, it cannot get worse. And then it gets worse."

Even though there is also a culture clash in Germany, with growing anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim expression, Hissen said he has been surprised to see a resurfacing of residual post-Civil War and post-slavery tensions in this country that he thought had been overcome

"People dare to more openly say things," he said.

"Trump has changed the language and communication in a way. It now seems you should sit down again and have a dialogue about your own history. So many people have weapons, and that's a big fear that people have, (that) there might be some sort of outbreak. What happens if Trump won't be re-elected. Will he start a civil war? Or what if he's impeached?"

Green said that even though there are no plans for the film to be shown in English, she hopes to get an English translation that can be used to publicize Hands Across the Hills in this country.

"For me, it's a wonderful opportunity," she said. "Our goal is to spread the message of communicating across the divides," she said. "This program is a successful example of the capacity to bridge divides and to change stereotypes and prejudices that we hold toward each other. I think it's wonderful that Europeans are interested in this and how our project can be viewed as an example of a positive response to the cultural and political divide."

Hissen, whose role as the film's director and then editor, is to "try to give it an open approach in letting people talk, to get a sense of what people feel like," is much like that of Green's role as dialogue facilitator between the Leverett and Kentucky groups so they can explore their own issues.

"In the end," he said, "there are easily stereotypes of, let's say Americans, looked at from the European side. My responsibility is to break these stereotypes but not judge, to not interfere too much … It's not about my personal opinion. I come out of public television, where the mission is about education."

The Hands Across the Hills, he said, will be "the red line" that will weave through the other "talking head" interviews with "a lively story."

It's a story that Green says "is giving people hope in a pretty hopeless time, when a lot of people are feeling pretty disempowered about the political situation. Changing the cultural behavior going on right now is something that seems impossible until you've tried it."

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