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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLA

‘The Reunited States’ seeks to document ordinary Americans, promote reconciliation

(Courtesy of The Reunited States)

By Shubhra Dubey

Feb. 9, 2021 5:16 p.m.

In a time of uncertainty, “The Reunited States” encourages viewers to choose unity and hope.

UCLA alumnus and producer Raj Krishna and director Ben Rekhi are releasing a documentary on the sociopolitical climate in the United States, accessible Tuesday on Amazon and iTunes. Rekhi said he hopes the film inspires others to identify their divisive tendencies and build bridges in their lives. Co-produced by major political figures such as Van Jones and Meghan McCain, the film follows the stories of four current bridge-builders as they devote their lives to conversing across the partisan divide and bringing communities together.

“For me this film was … a deep desire to understand what was tearing the country apart as well as to try to be involved in a project that would try to bring the country together and spread this message of hope and unity,” Krishna said.

After completing “The Hidden Vote” – a PBS docuseries about minorities who support Trump Rekhi said he became fascinated with challenging people’s preconceptions about the electorate and the formation of ideologies. He said the docuseries showed him the power of media, both in its ability to divide and unite.

But Rekhi said it wasn’t until he witnessed Susan Bro give a speech that he got the idea for the documentary. He soon started collaborating with Bro and documenting her political activism, leading him to meet the author of the titular book and an eventual producer for “The Reunited States.”

The documentary follows Bro, the mother of an activist who died while protesting against the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as the Leavertons, a Republican family who drove across the country in hopes of better understanding the nation’s divide.

[Related: New docuseries teaches audience to expand ‘World View’ even during pandemic]

Rekhi said in the current media context, viewers don’t often see the positive work done at an individual level, so he wanted to focus on everyday people who are actively engaging in productive conversations across the aisle. In the documentary, Bro revealed that after losing her daughter in the Charlottesville protest, she realized the need for people to work through differences to avoid further violence and became dedicated to furthering her daughter’s mission to end racial injustice.

“(She) was someone on the front lines of the division who had suffered this horrible tragedy, who was able to (become) a voice of reason and be on the other side of it,” Rekhi said.

The film also follows Steven Olikara, the founder of the Millennial Action Project, an organization dedicated to facilitating collaboration between young politicians across the political spectrum. Olikara said his background as a son of immigrants and a musician is woven into his political journey, adding that the film successfully and artistically portrayed the parallels between his identity and his goals as a political entrepreneur.

“Undoubtedly there’s a connection between this … personal journey I had growing up with an interest in politics … that sees the complexity that we bring to the table and seeks to explode these binaries that we have in our politics,” Olikara said.

The film’s intimate recording of the four subjects was an intentional choice to cultivate empathy, Krishna said. The camera follows not only the subjects’ professional careers but also their personal lives as the characters navigate the American experience. Krishna said since the film is being released during a time where documentary-style media tends to be more formal and educational, he believes the humility of each story will have a greater connection to viewers and relieve some of the helplessness in the current political climate.

[Related: Q&A: Alum Kal Penn emphasizes importance of youth voters in new limited series]

“This film was really designed as a way to provide an answer to that question – ‘What can we do?’ – by amplifying voices of everyday Americans using a very compelling form of media,” Krishna said.

But despite the gravity of such topics, the film’s relevance has recently been called into question. In the context of everything from the Black Lives Matter protests to the 2020 election as well as the recent insurrection at the Capitol, the documentary has received criticism from all sides for being tone-deaf or taking a sympathetic stance for the wrong people. As a result, Krishna said the production had to shift its messaging slightly in order to align with the world’s current state.

“We changed the tagline from ‘Are You Part of the Solution’ to ‘There is Another Way,'” Krishna said. “This is the pro and con of filmmaking … you can release a film and it can really tap into the moment and tap into the sentiment of the moment, which I think this movie does … (but) you can’t predict what’s going to happen in the future.”

Yet Rekhi, Krishna and Olikara maintain that the film’s vision is relevant to viewers today. Rekhi said the film’s original message of listening and conversing during times of division is universal and has even more weight in the current context, and he hopes that the film will show viewers how the action of one person can impact an entire community, state or nation. Recent civil unrest further illuminates the need for people reaching across the aisle to provide for communities and end the current cycle of hate, Olikara said.

“I think the amount of these gut-punching events that we’ve had recently have been a breaking point in many ways, “ Olikara said. “But I think it can also be a turning point for renewal if we take this opportunity to now build something truly different.”

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