Ideological Sustainability In ‘Follow the Leader’ @ IFC Center: Stranger Than Fiction – Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Photo credit Nick Troiano, participant in ‘Follow the Leader’

Follow the Leader” is a phrase as common to the contemporary American experience as apple pie is to its cuisine.  Most frequently heard within the friendly confines of schoolyard play, the phrase is an ideology in and of itself, unequivocally engrained into youthful minds by the intellectually circumspect trifecta of media, politics and society.  Perhaps born from prenatal developmental processes and followed by a “listen and repeat” sensibility, the notion of conformity is innate to the human evolution and experience.  By that same token, conformity acts in the age of global capitalism, hyper partisanship and overall societal misanthropy, conformity acts as the prevailing adhesive of community, on one hand connecting the cracks of what is already unglued, on the other, inhibiting access to the world outside the accepted lines.  While the collective consciousness of the intellectually savvy retains the necessary critical thinking, metaphysical reasoning, and historical context needed for individualized thought, the young, “in-search-of identity” generation remains the target of traditionalist propaganda.

It is in this age of temperamental volatility that allows this phrase to seldom be heard outside of adolescence. “Millennials are more conservative than we think,” Director Jonathan Goodman Levitt says of the country’s youth.  “On certain social issues the conversation has become more liberal, but generally the younger generation identifies with a more traditional conservative mindset,” he goes on.  “Given the liberties we have given up post 9/11, it is astounding to think we have moved in a liberal direction,” he continued.

In Levitt’s likewise titled documentary, investigating the political consciousness of three high school students from different backgrounds and different states, in the aftermath of 9/11.  The film lays an appreciatingly non-partisan approach to understanding the impressions of youth and the depths of its maturing manifestations.  “We aimed to depict the boys as fair minded as they can be, regardless of our personal views,” Levitt describes of his intent behind making the film.  “Small details frequently skew the views of the whole story,” he goes continues.  Set against the backdrop of the 2008 landmark presidential election that seemingly ended the eight years of moral horror, had finally come to an end, three interwoven journeys of self discovery root themselves in this volatile and historical moment, asking big questions along the way and attempting to answer them as best it (and they) can.  “Part of the challenge in making this film was to keep the three stories equally weighted…it would be easy to cut this film in a way that leaned towards one character as each were so rich, but ultimately we would not have as strong a film,” Levitt describes of his choices in narrative structure. “Originally we set out to follow the boys for a year to understand why they thought what they did, but the moment became so historic we had to keep going…the film is a coming of age story first and an American story second, but the history of the moment turned it into something viewed as being more political in nature.”

An argument can be made in regards to America’s youth, the millennial generation, being deceived by its own political system, media entities (outside of the all-important advertising demographic who, quite possibly, are responsible for the single most detrimental aspect of the equation: the engrainment of fantastic expectation) and familial lineage, resulting in a culture now more caricature than reality; David Brooks refers to this in a 2001 Atlantic article “…As the twenty-first century dawns, we know better. We know that children are shaped by the interaction of their DNA and their environment…driven by the sort of subterranean passions with which Freud concerned himself, nor as divine innocents.”  Leaders, regardless of charisma or content, base ideologies on flawed logic, rooted within the foundations of capitalist unsustainability and religious fallacy.  “Our system is built for slow change,” Levitt says.  Liberal or Conservative, the once educational, noble notion of constructive intellectual and social development has been replaced by the pursuit (nee, maintenance) of multi-layered status quo aftereffect.  If this is the context of America’s youth coming-of-age, what can we expect from its FUTURE leaders?  ‘Follow the Leader’, the film, is an interesting document on the roots of ideology in the time of hyper conformity that penetrates both fronts, where their intersection is undeniable, indistinguishable and volatile.  Across the spectrum specific to the conservative leaning demographic, ‘Follow the Leader’ establishes its credibility in its representation of ideological purity in its three main subjects.

D.J. Beauregard, a not- so- typical, post-industrial New Englander, holds convictions stemming from faith rather than finances. A strong, Christian based moral compass is at risk in this skilled orator’s world.  “At the very beginning of the film DJ admits he believed America’s laws came from God,” Levitt reminds me.  Levitt describes DJs interests at the time as being “concern with the Iraq War and military issues of the time.”  DJ’s experience leans towards the Santorum-type conservatism, blue-collar and bible loving. Not surprising, as his family, like many in his town, rely on the local missile manufacturing plant.

The self-proclaimed “radical-centrist”, Nick Troiano, oozes charisma.  In Levitt’s words, “Nick was a very popular class president, democratically elected and very emblematic of his peers as a result.”  Another example of rural experience, this time from Pennsylvania, Nick is as “all American” as it gets.  Even while in High School, Nick identifies as a conservative centrist.  He is guided by the creed that descent into hyper- partisanship is more detrimental to a positive nationalistic experience than laying specific blame to party or person.  In the scope of identifiable conservatism, Nick seems most emblematic of a Colin Powell type leader, staunch yet sensible. “As of now, (Nick) remains the most active, on a purely political basis; so much so that it comes at the detriment of other aspects of his life.” Levitt says, describing Nick’s current situation.

Finally, the suburban Ben Trump represents the purest conservative (at least to a mainstream media portrayal).   Identifying as a privileged continuation of an established D.C. lineage, Ben’s loyalty to the cause may be his greatest flaw.  Left virtually incapacitated by the results of ‘08, Ben vows to “never surrender in the face of adversity,” laying his groundwork for the triumphs (and disappointments) encountered across the ranks of the Republican establishment.  Ben’s admitted position within an already politically charged suburban community acts as both blessing and curse to a career that may have already been carved out for him.  In what capacity is compromise even possible for Ben when the pressures of familial “success” loom so large?

Each individual subject presented in the film has personal presidential aspirations.   At 16, more products of influence than experience, the three protagonists transform themselves over the course of the film, first guided by the words of media and religion, later, through authentic self-discovery and relocation.

Regardless of era, High School is an undeniably partisan structured time in one’s life; these are the years of cliques, clubs, and college applications after all.  “I went to leadership training programs and met thousand of boys and girls…there is a misconception out there that all kids fall in partisan lines, which is not true, but the ones with political aspirations do tend to be,” Levitt says of the early development process.  Though experience remains subjective, the non-adult categorization of youthful indifference, as well as its subsequent barrage of forced influence, is exactly what ‘Follow the Leader’ represents as a film and an ideology.  For example, when DJ’s father notices his focus shifting from politics and farther into faith, he strongly questions them; not so much for DJ’s sake but rather framing his argument within the practicality of the economic possibility in religion. “As other things start to matter it starts to solidify ones thoughts,” Levitt says.

At present time, with another election behind, Levitt continues to tell the boys’ story, appropriately adapting his film as a TransMedia entity, allowing for maximal audience participation.  “Reality Check Interactive is meant to bring people together to watch the same film in a structured, facilitated way, to decrease political polarization, get people talking about issues and ideology in a way that we don’t as a country, “ Levitt describes the current incarnation of ‘Follow the Leader’.  Adolescent upbringing, ideological decision-making and youthful idealism are all quantified, analyzed and discussed, furthering the conversation beyond the limits of the late 2000s interactive capabilities of the original film.  By cutting the 74 minute- long documentary into five segments, the director is asking each audience member for his/her personal take on the coming- of- age issues at hand. In this way, Levitt and ‘Follow the Leader’ continue to forge a unique path by using the society’s latest addition to its sphere of influence, technology. Levitt characterizes Reality Check as The first interactive, episodic presentation of a documentary.”  By segmenting the subjects’ stories, each act plays as an episodic representation of the familiar tropes of maturation.  Also, with the 2013 version of each subject further removed from his on -screen persona, the picture of ideological sustainability becomes as segmented as the project, or even life itself.  By following the subjects over a few years, the segments imply that political orientation, in this case conservatism,is the result of self –experience.  From the opening segment “Right From the Start” to its closing “Living History”, “Reality Check”, in Levitt’s words, ask its participants to “reconsider how they formed their political beliefs.”  “The political polarization in this country is lessened by talking about things, ” Levitt says.

Harnessing its strength from the diversity of its main characters, ‘Follow the Leader’ immediately acknowledges the range of experiences from the places ideology comes from, how it is influenced and how it can change.  It navigates a space within the experience of life and in doing so trumps the (now) more miniscule experience of country, never denying ones influence on the other.  The film is a driving depiction of ideological roots at a time when sometimes they are best served explained. As the only documentary to premier at both the RNC and the DNC and now having manifested into an interactive experience, ‘Follow the Leader’ is able to boast admirable success in its objective depictions in a subject too often mislead by both sides.  With media influence, political instability and societal cynicism at an all time high, the millennial represents the true lead in the modern theater of change.

‘Follow the Leader’ Plays in NYC @ IFC Center: Stranger Than Fiction – May 14, 2013

 – Steve Rickinson

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