SXSW Film Review: Join or Die

Can Rotary Clubs and bowling save America?

Join or Die

Why has American society become so fractured, so divisive? Why are loneliness, fear, and suspicion such prevalent states of our collective mind? Well, to hear the SXSW documentary Join or Die tell it, it’s the lack of collective endeavors to engage our mind (body and soul to follow) that have slid us down into this morass of isolation.

Based largely on the work of political scientist Robert Putnam, filmmakers Pete (a former student of the researcher) and Rebecca Davis have created a lively if superficial entreaty to become more civically engaged, which was the main thesis of Putnam’s bestselling 2000 book Bowling Alone. Putnam uses statistical analysis to correlate the decline of 20th century civic associations as being directly related to Americans unhappiness.

Here "civic associations" is a broad umbrella, comprising groups like the Rotary Club, Kiwanis, PTA groups, book clubs, trade unions, religious associations, and naturally, bowling leagues. Join or Die delineates American unhappiness by a montage sequence that goes a little something like this: segregationists, MLK assassination, Vietnam, Nixon resigning, dilapidated housing project, AIDS protest, Columbine shooting, Hurricane Katrina, 2008 financial crisis, Charlottesville white nationalist march, George Floyd mural, January 6 US Capitol attack.

And while the film doesn’t state that the deterioration of those clubs and associations are responsible for this curated list of woes (there are a few “clubs” in that montage to be sure), it is so enamored of Putnam and his research, that any sense of a full picture or a counterpoint is either brushed off in a quick side note or whitewashed altogether.

Finding it surprising that successive generations that came of age after 1960 were less trustful of people may support a hypothesis of a decline in social capital in American citizens, but it was probably a little more complicated than that. But Putnam - and subsequently, Join or Die - view it as just another data set.

Join or Die

Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere

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