Nobody was surprised that 72 percent of Utah’s voters chose George W. Bush in last year’s presidential election. The reddest state, due in large part to its majority Mormon population, is an admirably cohesive political unit. Or is it? Steven Greenstreet’s documentary
This Divided State, originally scheduled for Monday on the UC Berkeley campus, portrays a considerably more nuanced Utah than the place you thought you knew.
When he heard that student body officials of Utah Valley State College in squeaky-clean Orem (dubbed “Family City, USA”) had invited Michael Moore to speak in late October, 2004, 25-year-old Brigham Young University student and recent Utah transplant Greenstreet “had an intuition that all hell was going to break loose.” Moore, who asks hard questions while keeping his films entertaining, has found a solid fan base in universities — Greenstreet himself says he wanted to start making documentaries after seeing Roger and Me — and has taken to campus speaking like a duck to water. So why should UVSC be any different? Well it is, and it isn’t. For one thing, of course, you’ve got lots of people who believe in academic freedom — whether or not they agree with Moore’s ideas. On the other hand, there’re also folks like deep-pocketed businessman Kay Anderson, who will do whatever it takes to keep Moore and his ilk from coming to town and tainting everyone’s values.
The ensuing battle over Moore’s speaking engagement was tremendous, involving not only the obligatory petitions, protests, and newspaper editorials, but also a concerted effort to remove the student body president and VP, and an invitation to conservative commentator Sean Hannity (of Fox News’ Hannity and Colmes) to tape a show from campus. Spending every day filming at UVSC meant Greenstreet was skipping classes at BYU, and as the school was providing him with no support in his project, he eventually dropped out to complete the film. The team ended up with 66 hours of film, which had to be cut down to an emotion-packed 102 minutes.
Not content to resort to the easy dichotomy of Red vs. Blue that Americans have been force-fed for the last few election cycles, Greenstreet doesn’t stress the political affiliations of the people he interviews for the movie. What he does focus on is the importance of civil discourse and open-mindedness. Some of the strongest parts of the movie are when we see Mormon students on-screen talking about the fact that their state, and their religion, were founded on principles of tolerance (after all, LDS founder Joseph Smith was run out of town and eventually murdered for his beliefs). Another compelling moment is when a Togolese exchange student explains to a raucous group gathered to discuss the “Moore Controversy” that where he comes from, freedom of speech does not exist. And lest we forget, the attempted silencing of opposing viewpoints that happened in Orem happens on liberal college campuses, too: just consider what sort of welcome a high-profile conservative like Bill O’Reilly would get at Cal. This Divided State acknowledges that as political beings, we have a right to disagree with each other. But as students (and aren’t we all?) we have a duty to listen first. Because of a last-minute change of venue, This Divided State screens at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 3, at Stanford University’s Jordan Hall. For more info, see ThisDividedState.com.