Sending Postcards From the Great Divide
UT RTF chair Paul Stekler on election year for PBS
By Richard Whittaker,
9:00AM, Sun. Jul. 10, 2016
As department head of UT-Austin's Radio-Television-Film program, documentarian Paul Stekler has taught a few lessons. Midway through his new online series of election shorts for PBS, he's learning one too. He said, "Anyone that tells you that short films are easier to do than longer films, tell them they don't know what they're talking about."
Launching on July 11, Stekler's new nine-part series Postcards From the Great Divide is produced in partnership with PBS's Election 2016 initiative and the Washington Post, examining how local issues reflect more pervasive national concerns in this contentious election year.
Stekler has, in his own words, "done tons of feature documentaries." While his most famous work may be his epic 2000 biography George Wallace: Settin' the Woods on Fire, he's returned to the maelstrom of electoral politics for three views from the campaign trail: 1996's Vote for Me: Politics in America, 2004's Last Man Standing: Politics Texas Style, and 2013's examination of post-Katrina New Orleans, Getting Back to Abnormal. However, the 2016 races didn't seem to fit the mold of a feature documentary. Stekler said, "It just seems like more and more people were watching shorter docs online, and so I thought it would be an interesting challenge." It also allowed the veteran producer/director to embrace the possibilities and limitations of the format since, as he noted, "Everything is going to be online one way or the other."
During SXSW, he brainstormed the idea for a series of 10-minute shorts: snapshots of local issues that reflect a bigger underlying issue. He took the concept to "my longtime collaborators" Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker (with whom he worked on Vote for Me and Getting Back to Abnormal), "And I said, 'I've got this nutty idea, why don't you do it with me?'"
With funding in place from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the trio set out to find a young, diverse team of filmmakers to produce the bulk of the episodes.
Each episode uses an individual experience to discuss a larger issue: "Whatever Happened to Wisconsin Nice?" examines the growing ideological and generational divide, while Stekler described Minnesota-set "The Big Sort" as "a takeoff of Bill Bishop's book The Big Sort from 2004, and the idea that people are self-sorting." Texas-set "The Giant Still Sleeps" by UT RTF alum Miguel Alvarez centers on Pasadena city council candidate Oscar Del Toro's uphill struggle to increase the notoriously (and, for Democrats, frustratingly) low turnout among Hispanic voters. While the piece focuses on Del Toro and council incumbent Cody Ray Wheeler, Stekler sees their campaigns as "a metaphor for getting Latino voters engaged."
The trio of Alvarez, Kolker, and Stekler even created one of the first episodes themselves. "Million Dollar School Board," concentrating on the bitter school board recall election in Jefferson County, Colo. The short form was a real eye-opener for Stekler, who spent seven years on his Wallace doc. "It's like poetry," he said. "Poetry, every word counts. In a short film, you have to figure out a character or a situation that is metaphorically strong."
The Colorado short ended up being a testing ground for the concept and, Stekler admits, a salutary lesson of what not to do. He said, "It's a completely different form because we didn't find a main character. As we figured it out more, we realized that we have to find that focus."
The show also allowed Stekler to highlight the filmmaking skills of multiple UT RTF alums, including Alvarez, director Heather Courtney (Where Soldiers Come From), editors Lucy Kreutz (61 Bullets) and Karen Skloss (the upcoming The Honor Farm), and cinematographer Deb Lewis (Independent Lens). Stekler said, "It makes you really proud to see this stuff."
The first five episodes – Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin – are complete. The next pair, Washington and Nevada, should be completed by the end of July, with the plan to place them online in early August, "and the next two films we're finally figuring out," said Stekler. After that, the hope is to broadcast all nine on PBS, and then, Stekler said, "They'll live on PBS and the Washington Post forever."
Find out more about Postcards From the Great Divide at www.politicalpostcards.org