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'Reunited States’ Offers Hope for Both Sides In a Vast Political Divide

March 2, 2021
2 min read time

Filmmaker Ben Rekhi set out to find people who have dedicated their lives to reaching across the aisle and hearing both sides of the story to create his latest documentary, The Reunited States.

Inspired by Mark Gerzon’s 2016 book "The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide", Rekhi started his journey of making the film two and half years ago: “I thought we’d hit rock bottom then. I never would’ve imagined the world we are releasing the film into now.”

It began when Rekhi heard Susan Bro (mother of Heather Heyer, who died after being struck by a car when counter protesting a gathering of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017) speak. “Seeing her speak and be able to talk through tragedy and come out the other side as a voice of reason — I wanted to amplify her story, so I started filming,” states Rekhi. 

Gerzon then introduced Rekhi to the other main characters that he’d focused on profiling in his book: David Leaverton and family (David regretted his contributions to divisive strategies used in getting Republicans elected), Greg Orman (who ran for governor of Texas as an independent), and Steven Olikara, who works to get millennial politicians to cross the aisle more often. 

Rekhi states that the documentary involved a lot more writing than initially meets the eye. “It’s gone through a few evolutions. It took a lot of rewriting to get to a three act structure for each person’s story. Only when it got into that story structure did the film start to resonate," he says. "We spent fourteen months in editing and had a few big pivot moments where we threw everything out and started over.”

Despite the long process of constructing a documentary, Rekhi was compelled by the stories he was telling. “The Leavertons particularly inspired me,” muses Rekhi. “They went to all fifty states. They took a year of their lives to dive into these divisions and meet people, and we needed a visceral way to show their story. So, we made a big pivot in showing their journey and working as a fly on the wall traveling with them.”

Rekhi ended up with too much material for the project in a good way. He also interviewed academics about the current polarization in the country and will soon launch a series more academically focused on their perspectives and findings. 

In the meantime, he’s letting his main characters in The Reunited States speak for themselves, and they do it well. In addition to the efforts of each individual Rekhi followed that are trying to bridge the connection gap the country is experiencing, their narratives also often intersect. There is a particularly moving scene where Susan Bro attends a dinner with the Leavertons, and she breaks down when she confesses she did not want to attend. She holds David Leaverton’s work in right wing rhetoric partially responsible for her daughter’s death. It’s an undeniably uncomfortable moment and one can see David Leaverton struggling with what responsibility he bears throughout the film. Interestingly, after the family’s travels are over, Leaverton moves his brood to Charlottesville knowing there’s more work to be done there. 

There’s lots to take away from The Reunited States, but Rehki says it best: “It’s really easy for us to look at people we disagree with like they’re the problem, but it can often be our own thoughts and feelings and actions that might be putting fuel on fire. It’s easy to get upset and blame the government and say, oh, look at what the Republicans or Democrats are doing. But it’s citizens and movements from the public sphere that heal our divisions. There are people all over the nation that are holding the country together right now and working through the divide, and these bridge builders don’t get the attention they rightly deserve.” 

The Reunited States is out now on multiple streaming platforms and has broken the Top 10 in most watched newly released documentaries on iTunes.

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