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'Follow the Leader' documentary features 16-year-olds dreaming of the presidency

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(Read caption) 'Follow the Leader' centers on three teenagers who all dream of being president of the United States.

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Since less than a week ago, I’ve been hard at work helping to promote a Kickstarter campaign, which ends on Thursday, for filmmaker Jonathan Goodman Levitt’s documentary, FOLLOW THE LEADER, a real-life coming-of-age story of three traditional American boys with Presidential dreams. A journey of political and personal discovery, the film promises to spark meaningful and reflective conversations about American political realities in the months surrounding the 2012 U.S. Presidential election.

In FOLLOW THE LEADER, sixteen-years-old, high school class presidents Ben (The Loyalist from Virginia), D.J. (The Believer from Massachusetts) and Nick (The Idealist from Pennsylvania) are all conservatives who plan to continue leading their peers as President someday. Over three life-changing years, they split into Republican, Democratic and Independent camps as each reconsiders his lofty ambitions. Growing up at a critical moment for America as well, their lives also force us all to rethink our assumptions about tomorrow’s leaders, the impact of 9/11 on them, and the political views of the millennial generation – which are more complicated than most people currently believe.

A large focus of the film’s outreach starting this fall involves the linked transmedia project REALITY CHECK INTERACTIVE, a unique cross-platform social change initiative that combines interactive voting technology and an episodic presentation of FOLLOW THE LEADER to spark a national conversation about American political realities. As bitter political feuds seem to erupt everywhere in public, Levitt and his team – including activists across the political spectrum, and key figures in the transmedia and transpartisan spaces – are planning a unique national tour surrounding the 2012 Elections.

Through Kickstarter, Levitt is seeking help in funding the completion of post-production, insurance and some outstanding music clearances required to release the film, as well as the initial launch of REALITY CHECK INTERACTIVE.

To make a pledge to FOLLOW THE LEADER and REALITY CHECK INTERACTIVE on Kickstarter, visit: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/followtheleader/follow-the-leader-and-reality-check-interactive

Below is my One-on-One Q&A I had with Levitt about FOLLOW THE LEADER.

TFPN: What drew you to the subject matter of American boys aspiring for political careers, and how did you find and choose your characters to tell this story?

JGL: I was living and working in London for about a decade, before 9/11 and for several years after. The summer after 9/11, while I was teaching in New Jersey at the Governor’s School held at Monmouth University, I was struck that the student leaders there had changed in some way compared to my students I taught prior to 9/11 in terms of their politics and outlook on world affairs.

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I really felt like the people growing up in the wake of 9/11 here, and just people generally in the U.S., were getting a radically different look at current events compared to everyone else. That was an idea that stuck with me, when I was considering a move back to the U.S. I was a bit confused about what being American meant to the people growing up today. I was obviously still a proud American regardless of where I lived, but I had a certain outsider’s perspective as a result of living abroad during most of my twenties. Before that, I was on a path to do a PhD in Psychology and stopped after a master’s, but those years I studied social psychological processes have stayed with me, and continue to strongly influence how the work is made. So this film came out of those two motivations, wanting to understand what it meant to be American for those growing up in the wake of 9/11, and wanting to understand the psychology behind it.

In 2005, when I was investigating making a new film about young leaders, I started reaching out to high school organizations that I had some connection to or awareness of as a teenager myself in high school. As a teenager, I did a lot of work in the New Jersey District of Key Club, went to Boys State, and participated a bit in Model Congress. And all these groups remain very active today. I started going to some of their events, and meeting some of the potential characters that might be in the film. It was a big question of where to focus. After meeting thousands of teenagers, I decided to focus on just a few teenagers, who believed wholeheartedly at the time in the Bush Administration’s war on terror, because I saw that public opinion was beginning to change in America, as it had started to shift years before in the rest of the world.

The project of the film was to follow these young leaders as they changed (or didn’t) and became full-fledged adults who thought more for themselves – which it’s really very hard to do at 12 or 16 or even 50 sometimes! I focused on American Legion Boys State in part because of their long history of identifying and training future leaders like Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Tom Brokaw, Neil Armstrong and Michael Jordan. And they were one of the few groups to focus specifically on “Americanism” and what that means – which was also my main topic. I’m not the best one to describe what they do, but their practical approach and presence throughout the country made their leadership weeks a natural choice for meeting a few traditional young leaders who I wanted to follow as they grew up.

I met DJ first, and he was just immediately charismatic. Really a charming, and charmingly goofy kid who had all these great ideals. He was just a lovely guy to be around. That was by far the easiest choice. He was just larger than life at 16. I was really impressed with him, and he operated as an adult politician the first times we met – like, he would get phone calls from actual adult politicians asking for his endorsement, and he would talk with them as someone who had the very real power he had to influence a local election. He was coming off running the campaign of the top vote-getter in the last City Council election, I think. At Massachusetts Boys State on the first day of our shoot we filmed with Ted Kennedy, and then I met this kid who didn’t necessarily look the part, but certainly played it very well.

When I first met Ben, I asked him one question, and I think he spoke for 15 minutes without stopping, and he told me everything about his life as if he were on the news. It was immediately apparent that Ben had a lot going on professionally, but also at home. He had a very interesting personal motivation to go into politics that partly related to the fact that Ben’s parents were in the midst of a divorce; it was all having a very specific impact on his personal political values. In fact, when I met Ben, one of the first politicians he told me he admired was the “honorable Barack Obama, the great senator of the state of Illinois,” and within weeks he was already more of a Republican Party loyalist. Ben seemed very plugged into politics in his local area and was incredibly ambitious. He was a star – as even his hero Ken Cuccinelli (now Virginia’s Attorney General who’s running for Governor) used to say. And I identified with his family struggles as well, since I had a lot of the same things take place for me as a teenager. I wanted to see how Ben worked through those challenges.

Nick was the last character I settled on because in many ways it wasn’t clear that he would be open enough to let us film him. I was impressed by what he did in high school. He was that kid who everyone in town has high hopes for, the All-American leader who carries the hopes of his small town for everyone. But whether he would be willing to be open to the camera – so that he would be sympathetic to viewers as he was for me personally – was unclear at the beginning. Before I decided that he would definitely even be in the film, Nick and I spent time filming and just hanging out with his family, on probably even 10 occasions. He was more local and easier for me to reach than the other guys, so we developed more of a personal relationship more quickly this way as friends than with the other guys on this film, where it was a clearer filmmaker-subject relationship until after the filming was over. We talked a lot about his public service and what he was doing, and a lot of it really had little to do with the film itself. Once we had trust and his Youth Coalition started taking off in Pike County, it seemed like it was going to work, but it was by no means certain. At the end of the day, Nick is like many of the best characters in documentaries because he’s a reluctant participant. As a viewer, you’re getting special access to someone because they have a relationship with the filmmaker, not because he or she is someone who has a strong desire to have their lives filmed all the time.

Neither of the other guys is on the opposite of the spectrum in terms of this either – but I think they always saw it more as a part of what they’d have to do anyway to be a public person in today’s world. Nick’s a bit more private and suspicious, and it was a battle sometimes to get him to be the teenager I knew in life on-camera – because the last thing I wanted was for him to come across as suspicious in the film. Even in the end, Nick’s story is certainly a personal one, but it also became a real entry point into public opinion generally. His journey, more than the other guys’, inhabits the nation’s journey. He was and continues to channel a lot of what’s happening with the attitudes for many among the millennial generation.

TFPN: Why did you decide to do a Kickstarter campaign, and why should people pledge to it?

JGL: I wanted to create a Kickstarter campaign so I could tell people about the film as soon as possible. I really want to release the film quickly and spark the conversations in our country that we really haven’t been having enough of, and start doing it before the elections in the fall. The campaign was also formed to help build partnership relationships and get people excited about the film. It might seem a bit odd, but the funding is not the primary reason why we’re on Kickstarter. We’re going to be fundraising for many months after the Kickstarter campaign ends on Thursday as well, and we’ve been fundraising for several years throughout the whole process – that’s unfortunately just what most filmmakers have to do these days. The fundraising on Kickstarter is also as much about giving the project legitimacy with other funders and the media as it is about the fundraising itself. If people like what we’re doing, they can support the film with a pledge. This is the first major step in what’s planned to be a far wider initiative.

TFPN: What challenges have you faced in getting support for the film prior to launching the Kickstarter campaign?

JGL: Over the last seven years, people in general have really been suspicious about what we’re doing. We are not pushing a political point-of-view with the film, and so everyone thinks we’re against them because we’re not for them. Everyone might think I’m for the other side, but I’m trying to make a fair-minded film about all opinions from the point of view of the participants. And frankly, people have had a very hard time grasping why the film is about three white boys – but it’s because that’s who is still running the country (white men) for the most part, and yet at the same time “traditional” political views are rarely represented in a fair-minded way in documentaries. It’s odd, but a “traditional” way to make this film within the paradigm that many filmmakers, gatekeepers, and channels operate would have been to film a multicultural set of teenage leaders, not even including a white boy. That’s fine – but the “traditional” ways of sparking the conversations we need about politics aren’t working for us, and they are too often preaching to the converted only, leaving others outside of the conversation entirely.

On a basic level, I think Americans need to react and respond to the baseline political realities in America. We’re having such a poor discussion because everyone has their own set of facts, don’t know the facts, or relies on different assumptions. So my approach to provoking discussion and change is quite different, and people haven’t known what to do with it, where to place it. Sometimes they’re afraid of it. I can tell you it has been very difficult for people to understand on the funding side in particular until now, when they can see what I’ve been talking about all these years. A lot of people think documentaries are about understanding where people are coming from, whether they agree with the film participants’ attitudes or not. But there’s a political correctness among many decision-makers that reflects the politics of our country that we need to get past. We need to take a step back and think about even how we have these discussions on a very basic level – rather than either getting angry or otherwise pussy-footing around the realities. Now that the film is done, people are coming around to see where I was coming from in the first place, but I do understand it’s not easy for people. Now we really are starting to receive support from all parts of the political system, and that’s starting to drive growing interest from American broadcasters and other platforms. We’re working with the Roosevelt Institute – that works to continue Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR’s work, which has as one of its signature accomplishment much of our social safety net such as social security. And we just did a screening and presentation at the American for Tax Reform, a conservative group run by Grover Norquist. Even groups that clearly disagree are seeing the value in having these discussions around the film.

TFPN: What are your hopes with the Reality Check Interactive initiative? How do you think it will open up a dialogue amongst ideologically opposed political views in America?

JGL: Documentaries’ natural audience is typically a liberal audience, and hopefully the documentary will reach that audience. But for conservatives, there aren’t many films in which they can see themselves portrayed in a fair-minded way. Our film portrays all political views in a fair-minded way. I feel like the film is really unique and that it will appeal to people regardless of they believe, and that it will force many people to question their own beliefs. Because of that, we have the opportunity to bring people together to talk about issues in a way that doesn’t happen often in our public sphere.

TFPN: How do you think Follow the Leader and Reality Check Interactive will impact this year’s upcoming Presidential election, if it all?

JGL: I think that if we have more meaningful and reflective conversations on politics, the choices we make about our leaders will be better. The level of political dialogue and debate in our country now is really pathetic. People certainly are not talking about the issues, and even when issues are discussed, they’re talking past each other, not listening to each other. Now we have the opportunity to have a facilitated discussion about the issues raised throughout the film via our Reality Check Interactive events. We’ll be engaging people in a safe, structured way about issues I know people on all sides feel passionately about, which they rarely discuss with people who disagree. Spending time with the guys in the film, and not just them, but all young people, really inspires me that there is hope to improve the political dialogue in our country. There is hope to have a meaningful and reflective dialogue and improve our political system by working together. Touring with the film and Reality Check really does have the power, if we’re fortunate enough to get the support we need at this crucial time for the project and our country, to make a difference for the better.

Brian Geldin blogs at The Film Panel Notetaker.

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