Reporters Have to Get Better at Listening. This New Docuseries Shows How. | Sojourners

Reporters Have to Get Better at Listening. This New Docuseries Shows How.

Image via "The Messy Truth."

In the last days of a painfully divisive election season, activist and CNN contributor Van Jones and D.C. filmmaker brothers Brandon and Lance Kramer teamed up to do the unthinkable: Head to a battleground state and listen to Trump supporters.

The Messy Truth, a three-part short documentary series co-produced by the Kramer brothers’ D.C.-based Meridian Hill Pictures and Jones’ Magic Labs Media follows Van Jones as he talks with a family, four friends, and a group of voters in Pennsylvania — days before the state went for Trump.

The result is a moving, frustrating, and important look at what it takes to listen and engage across our divides. Brandon and Lance talked with Sojourners about their motivations for the project, and what witnessing these conversations in real time can teach us about our own attempts to find common ground.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Catherine Woodiwiss, Sojourners: How did you come up with this idea?
Brandon Kramer, Director, The Messy Truth: We were feeling like we were heading to a very dangerous place for the country, no matter who won the election. It just felt like common ground was dissolving. As filmmakers, we feel that one of the biggest culprits is people not getting the right information about each other's lived experiences. There’s been a growing desire to use media to push a very pointed message and everything needs to fit into that neat box, but humanity does not fit into a neat box.

So we approached [Magic Labs Media] ... and shared our desire not just to knock on doors, but to try to dive into the center of this toxicity and provide something that was missing — very simply, to be empathetic.

Van, for us, was one of the very few public figures we could identify who is not only socially and politically aligned with how we feel but also interested in digging into that middle messy truth. He was feeling very similarly — a strong desire to get off of the podium and go into communities.
The idea was very simple: Let’s find a battleground state that has people supporting Trump, but also a cross section of perspectives, and put Van in a position where he could walk to coffee shops or people's homes and have honest, vulnerable conversations.

Sojourners: How did you find these particular families?
Brandon: We had a month until election day. We had no financial backing. Every single person who worked on this project volunteered, and it was a really high end crew.
So I started calling every single friend I know in a battleground state, and we cold-called community groups, churches, nonpartisan voter registration groups. Eventually I got in touch with a friend who lives in Gettysburg, who is very civically engaged and had a lot of close relationships across the political spectrum. Within an hour he said, I’ve got 10 people. One of the people I called was Kim, the mother of the family in that first video.
Sojourners: What was it like for you to be in the room watching these conversations happen?
Lance Kramer, Producer, The Messy Truth: It was affirming. We had this abstract notion of what was missing and what was possible, and we felt like we were willing to take a risk to see if we could make that a reality, but we didn’t know if we’d be able to find the crew who would be able to volunteer for no money, or a community that would be receptive to this idea, let alone a family. We didn’t know if people would warm up and be vulnerable or be sensitive and close down. These are the types of things as filmmakers we’re always thinking about, but we’d never done something quite so rapidly or at such a big stake.
To be in those spaces and see people open up very quickly, and the rawness of the emotion and the passion that people brought to the table, and the care and the empathy and the pain and all the things that were there … it just felt very validating that there was something to that hunch.

That was the upside for me — I felt so grateful that we’d taken the proactive step to make this happen. It also made me very sad. There was a kind of personal pain that I felt in the room, and certainly in the time after the day we filmed, and I’ve particularly been feeling it this week — I just felt terrible that it was so late. Sparks of catharsis were happening in the room, and it just felt like, Why hasn’t this been happening? Why is this so late to the game?


Brandon: When we first arrived at Kim’s home, featured in the first episode, there was one gentleman who was a friend of Kim’s. Right before Van and our camera and sound people arrived, he asked me if I could step outside. And he said, “Look, I looked up Van Jones last night and I was watching a lot of his clips and his interviews and you know, this is somebody who is very liberal — and I’m wondering, are you guys here to bring someone big from CNN into the home of Trump supporters to basically ridicule them and make them look like evil people? Am I about to witness that happening?”

The expectation of us is that we’re coming in to do a gotcha piece, because that’s the norm for this kind of storytelling. When the conversation got started, there was a lot of fear and concern about that being why we were there — and because there was literally almost no other examples that we could point to of civility! We couldn’t come in there and say, No, no, we’re doing it the way this was done, because there was no one doing that.

So when that guy pulled me out, that was confirmation that I was doing the exact right thing. It took us forever to find a family of Trump supporters that would even let us into their home, because people were so concerned about being vilified. The fact that it took us weeks to even find a family that was OK sharing their opinions about why they’re voting for this person that is now the next president of the United States — that’s crazy! People don’t even feel comfortable sharing their views on that, because the climate is that toxic? It’s really scary when people are that anxious about sharing honest perspectives with other people sitting in the same room.

Sojourners: Have you heard from that family or other you spoke with after filming went public? What have their responses been?

Brandon: Yes. We released the first episode and it went very far, very fast. Van is used to being on camera and being seen by millions of people. The family was not. And they were willing to have a very, very difficult conversation. To us — to Van and Lance and I — that was an act of courage that deserved recognition and respect, even though there was very strong disagreements in how they felt.

Some people were just sort of using our video as a way to yell at Trump supporters. And — a minority, but this did happen — used the comments sections to personally attack the family members. So the family reached out to me, and said, you know, “I thought you were creating this to build bridges, to have an open and empathetic space, not to have our family attacked like this.” And they were right.

Van took that responsibility very seriously. So he created a Facebook Live post where he basically was like, “Look, here’s why we did this project, disagree but don’t be a jerk about it.” He created rules: It’s OK to disagree, and you should, and he does, but he asks people, “If you’re going to criticize, say one thing positive about them participating in the project.” The family really appreciated that follow through.


If you yell at people just for participating and being vulnerable, no one else wants to be vulnerable. If some feel personally attacked for wanting to have an honest conversation, no one else is going to want to have an honest conversation.

We’ve never taken an overt step into the middle of a political arena, let alone this one, and for us it’s been an enormous learning curve — if you're trying to do something with integrity and empathy amidst one of the most polarizing moments in our country’s history, you’ve got to fight for that.

Sojourners: Will you all continue telling stories in the same way, or is this your only venture into the political realm and you might just want to venture back out again?

Brandon: This has always been our approach to storytelling. ...What I feel compelled to fight for is that we, as documentary filmmakers — instead of building further walls and fortifying — take different groups of people and explore that messy middle and try through storytelling rebuild some sense of common ground. [Election Day] didn’t change the direction of Meridian Hill Pictures. But it kind of put into bold what we were already doing and cemented the work that needs to be done.

Lance: Elections are one component of democracy, but elections are not the democracy. They’re a piece of it. To us, democracy happens every day, and in many ways it should happen through every single way that you relate with people. Every interaction should be influenced by democracy. If we live in a country with free speech, that has an affect on how I relate with people throughout my day.

I think we’re feeling this responsibility as storytellers — in these days between elections, we’re helping to contribute to that day-by-day democracy around how your community works and how are other people experiencing this country. That is something that may be under threat, and I think it may be up to independent storytellers to keep that alive.

We’re part of a community of people who are using cameras and pens and microphones to explore our differences — and I think that’s what keeps our differences from being explored by knives and bombs and all these other forms of destruction. What you’re doing with a publication, what we're doing with film, it’s all part of the same effort.

That’s where you see democracy at work, and that’s really what we’re rededicating ourselves to.