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‘I’m interested in urgent cinema’: Director Ben Rekhi on his latest documentary, ‘The Reunited States’

Ben Rekhi   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Ben Rekhi is no stranger to navigating the murky world of politics and human suffering. His début feature, Waterborne (2005) starring Shabana Azmi, revolved around a terrorist attack; the 2018 documentary The Hidden Vote looked at minority communities who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and his 2019 crime thriller Watch List (Maria) tells the story of a woman whose husband is killed in an extrajudicial killing under President Rodrigo Duterte’s watch in the Philippines.

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In his latest documentary The Reunited States, Rekhi, 42, profiles four individuals who are grappling with the growing political chasm in the United States — Susan Bro, whose daughter was killed when a car ploughed through a rally in Charlottesville in 2017; Greg Orman, an independent politician who wants to provide a viable alternative to the two-party system; Steven Olikara, a political commentator working to build a coalition of bi-partisan lawmakers; and David and Erin Leaverton, two Republicans who travel across the US to understand what is driving Americans apart.

I ask him what draws him to politics, a topic many filmmakers seem to veer away from. “It’s never overtly about politics... I call it urgent cinema,” Rekhi says over a phone call from the US. “There are a lot of crises in our world and cinema is a very powerful tool to help us understand and navigate it. I ask myself ‘where are the stories of people in conflict, or under oppression?’ and a lot of times that comes from politics and policy,” he says, adding that there is hope for independents with electoral reform. “We live in a world where it’s black or white in politics, but the world is grey. There is a lot of momentum now to change the way we vote. We need more political parties so that it’s not just this duopoly where the two of the most powerful keep everyone else out.”

A still from the documentary

A still from the documentary   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

His new film — available on iTunes, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other online platforms in the US — might find resonance in India and in Europe, says the Indian-American filmmaker. “There is some entertainment value in watching the turmoil happening in the US, but there is also some self-reflection that can come from it.”

Edited excerpts from an interview:

How did the idea for the documentary come about?

In the aftermath of the killing of Bro’s daughter, which saw hate spill over into violence, she very simply spoke about the need to have difficult conversations, and to avoid further violence. Listening to her, I wondered how someone who had suffered such an incredible tragedy could come out the other side as a voice of reason. I felt that her wisdom could benefit others in this time where people feel lost, scared or angry about politics. I then spoke to Bro and started filming with her. I met Olikara, Orman, David and Erin through Mark Gerzon (the author of a book of the same name) who has been working on bridging the divide between politics for over 30 years.

What is your fascination with minorities supporting Trump?

After Trump won in 2016, there was a sense of denial, and a lot of us were trying to understand things we had ignored about our country. To me, the fact that 31% Latinos, 18% Muslims voted for him... it was different than the narrative that we were hearing about how this is an ‘angry white man’ problem.

What we learned while filming is that a lot of it comes down to religious lines. For instance, many Hispanic voters are Catholic so, for them, it comes down to issues of pro-life vs. pro-choice, and the Republican agenda aligns with their religious morals. Similarly, there are divides within the Muslim community, so when Trump enacted the Muslim ban keeping out certain types of Muslims, there were some within the community who were happy.

I realised that no minority group is monolithic; politics just tries to paint it as so.

A still from the documentary

A still from the documentary   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Is the process of creating narrative films and feature documentaries similar?

I come from the narrative film world and this was my first feature documentary. One of the big differences is that in fiction, you have the script beforehand. In a documentary, you do all the production and then you try to shape it into a story. It was an incredibly big learning curve for me, to go through two different versions of the movie, to throw them out and start over. We are trying to challenge peoples’ perceptions and raise awareness, but it has to be entertaining. So we went back to the editing table, edited them individually first and then we inter-cut them.

How did people react to the Leversons’ decision to travel through all 50 States?

It wasn’t an easy journey for them. They gave up everything, and still so many people doubted them along the way. What I loved about such interactions is that it shows conflict and drama, but it also shows the family’s transformation. There is a scene where they are talking to a woman who lost her baby over a racial disparity. There is a lot of conversation about race happening in the US now and the film is trying to explore the topic in a sensitive way.

How has the feedback for the film been?

It’s been mixed. We’ve got messages like ‘now I can talk to my father or mother who I disagree with’ and also had some intense responses from people who are angry and don’t want to get along with the other side. We have been called a leftist film by the right and a right-wing film by the left. If you’re upsetting both sides, you are doing something right.

A still from the documentary

A still from the documentary   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Is the polarisation really at its peak right now or have they been heightened by social media?

In the 1960s, there was a lot more political violence in the US but in our generation, this is the most divided it has been. What we are watching in the news is the most extreme 5% of each party. What about the rest of us who are somewhere down the middle? A study called the Hidden Tribes of America states that 67% of Americans are an exhausted majority that are just hiding in this toxic division. But the event on January 6 (the storming of the US Capitol by a right-wing mob) has raised the stakes. A lot of people view it as a point of no return... but there is a lot of potential for us to find common ground in our pain.

What next?

I am pursuing two fictional projects: a film on mass shootings set in the US and another one India. It’s something I’m excited about, but I can’t talk about just yet.

Details about the release of The Reunited States in India will be announced shortly


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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 6:29:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/director-ben-rekhi-on-his-latest-documentary-the-reunited-states/article34391473.ece

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