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Documentary project proves political conversations can happen

They changed neither hearts nor minds but the group of political students at the University of Virginia Center for Politics did something more important: They discovered that they can get along.

The team of students, whose personal beliefs span political spectrum, were serving as interns and decided to create a documentary featuring students of similar ilk to see if they could find common ground.

That led to the movie’s name, Common Grounds. The 30-minute documentary was premiered Nov. 11 in the Rotunda Dome Room.

“I was surprised at the amount of people willing to have a conversation with people who disagreed with them, said Molly Hayes, who worked on the film. “That’s what we’re missing from a lot of our politicians and from people in the country as a whole. It seems like we’re just automatically angry at people on the other side. How are you ever going to do anything if you can’t even talk to someone?”

The documentary was developed in 2020 during the depths of the pandemic. Hayes and fellow student interns Miranda Hirts, Sean Piwowar, Victoria Spiotto and Raed Gilliam designed, wrote and filmed the project.

The movie replaced the in-person events usually planned by interns in the department, which were canceled due to COVID-19.

“We were talking about some documentary projects and trying to come up some ideas,” Gilliam recalled. “We were talking about recent controversial events that had happened at UVa, in particular the ‘[expletive] UVa’ sign on the door of a Lawn room. That led to a discussion about the political climate on Grounds.”

The conversations among themselves fleshed out the documentary’s content.

“We went from a 10-minute thing to three 10-minute things,” Gilliam said. “We originally started with the door, but nothing about the door made it into the documentary.”

“We not only had to talk together to work things out, but we disagreed with each other and had to make a movie together so we had to reach agreement on basic things,” said Piwowar, who identified himself as a conservative. “There would be ways I thought were great ways to put a question and Molly would say, ‘no, that won’t work.’ I would hear something and think that a conservative is going to hear that word and be turned off. We’d try and rephrase what we were saying and asking. It wasn’t about appealing to all sides but making all sides feel invited in so they’d buy in.”

“We were all disparate politically, so everybody had three or four people that they reached out to,” recalled Hayes, who identified herself as a progressive, a bit to the left of Bernie Saunders. “We started with about two dozen students and went with a dozen.”

They scoured the ranks of opinion writers for the UVa student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, school political clubs, Twitter activists and social media posters to find students willing to participate in the project.

“I wanted this documentary for the Charlottesville and UVa community and I really wanted to start with the Aug. 11 and Aug. 12 [2017] events as a context for why this topic, at this university, is relevant for the whole country,” said Gilliam, who identified himself as a moderate and a Christian. “This was the setting for a big moment in the country. We were trying to give a voice to different perspectives that are out there”

Student participants discuss their views on a series of issues in the documentary and then they meet face-to-face to discuss the topics.

“When you see discussion on cable TV and you have a moderator, people are usually shouting at each other. I kind of expected that,” said Thomas Driscoll, a self-described moderate Democrat who was one of the students participating.

“For me it was eye opening. When it came to group dialog, I was really surprised at how people responded,” Driscoll recalled. “It was completely different. It was more, ‘I care about what you have to say but I need to respond to what you have to say.’ It was respectful. I found it reassuring.”

“It’s been educational for me,” said Gilliam. “The experience of spending up to 15 hours of talking to people across the political spectrum helped me get a grasp on what the different viewpoints are. I’m more centrist but there is a party line for some people.”

From Jesus to Mick Jagger, the interns looked for metaphors to describe what they took away from the effort. For Gilliam, understanding other viewpoints is like Jesus looking toward those who differed from him. For Driscoll, it was Jagger’s tune “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and its answering lyric “sometimes you get what you need” that defines political discussion.

“It’s very fitting to have this conversation today. Every side may not walk out with what they wanted in a compromise, but everyone can walk out with something that will benefit the community,” Driscoll said.

“Part of the problem is we don’t share the same sense of facts about what happened, what politicians said or did or what they believe,” Hayes said. “Without a set of facts, it’s hard to have a conversation. That’s a product of hyper-polarization, when you not only have different beliefs, but different facts. There needs to be a huge cultural shift.”

Creating the documentary led the interns to some important conclusions.

“It’s very easy to vilify and argue with people over social media or in another impersonal setting. What’s hard is intentionally engaging with people with whom you vehemently disagree,” Hayes said. “It can be uncomfortable, infuriating, and honestly discouraging, but nothing will ever get better, progress will never be made, without it. Change is inherently uncomfortable. Refusing to engage with the other side truly only hurts your own side. If you can’t build coalitions and develop shared goals nothing will ever get done.”

Gilliam said he learned that an individual can make a difference.

“You can take steps, where you are, with what you have, to make a difference and see things happen that you didn’t think could be possible,” he said. “By making a film about a problem of division and disunity among students that had no clear solution, we were able to start a conversation between students who never in a million years would have chosen to interact.”

“What stood out the most was the fact we were able to bring together students from all ends of the political spectrum to have a very cordial and productive conversation,” Driscoll said. “That was something that I honestly didn’t expect, especially given just how polarized a lot of the rhetoric had been both during the interview phase of the documentary as well as on social media.”

Gilliam said the interactions were temporary, but they were a start.

“Others can start initiatives and community projects that require longer-lasting collaboration. All it takes is someone who is willing to be the bridge, to give both – all sides – a chance to come to the table,” he said.

Hayes said she hopes people who watch the movie will feel the way she did.

“I hope people are able to take a step back from considering the discomfort that such an endeavor, engaging with the other side, would bring, and consider what it might provide them and what it might provide this country as a whole,” she said.

“My hope is that people learn the value of listening to others,” Gilliams said. “This documentary didn’t set out to preach anything. It’s meant to really showcase the variety of perspectives that exist on Grounds and to bring those perspectives into conversation with one another. If super passionate, opinionated college students can talk and work on a project together, anyone can.”

Driscoll said he hopes those who view the documentary will see how people of opposing views can work together.

“These were people who were not afraid to express their beliefs and embrace controversial positions, yet in the end, no one cursed at, spoke over, or even interrupted during the group the dialogue. Instead they all listened,” he said. “While certainly no one’s opinions were changed while making this documentary, we learned how to listen to one another — something which gives us hope in our era of fractured and divisive political discourse.”


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