With days until the election, resurfacing the documentary “Michigan Divided” from earlier this year seems appropriate. The film focuses on the differences and similarities between Michigan residents from across the state and the political spectrum.
The film’s producer, Bridge reporter Ron French, discussed the logistics of the film and editorial decisions made behind the scenes at the Ford School of Public Policy Tuesday night as part of Bridge Magazine’s “Michigan Truth Tour.” He defended his team’s call to included segments where a President Trump supporter from Harbor Springs cited unsubstantiated claims Trump made as a candidate.
“Actually, I felt that was a very important part of the film to have in there — to show the sort of bad information that some people have and on which they make their decisions,” French said. “We made a conscious decision at the beginning of this project not to argue with anyone. So if someone was saying that they believe the earth was flat, we just said, ‘Uh huh,’ and moved on, which with some of those things, it was hard at times, but that was what we decided to go.”
The film is built on a series of reports Bridge published in January 2017 that examined divides that exist between Michigan residents on political, economic and social issues. Bridge started the project the day after the 2016 election, following 11 families for a year, and reporting on their experiences, opinions and hopes for the state and the country. Six of those people were then featured in the documentary.
French said as far as he knew, none of the film’s participants had changed their point of view, adding that a person’s source of information was a major contributor to the gaps that exist between those with different political beliefs. French described an instance in which a liberal couple from Ann Arbor who read The New York Times and listened to Michigan Radio switched news feeds with a conservative man from Troy who got most of his news from Republican talk radio shows and the president’s Twitter feed.
“Frankly I think that’s the biggest source of the divide that we have,” French said. “… They swapped for one week. Actually, the conservative, six hours into the one-week project, he emailed me and said, ‘I’m out. I can’t read The New York Times anymore. This is too crazy stuff.’ I really do think that’s something that’s new for this generation and I don’t know what the solution is gonna be.”
The participants’ reactions to the election were also a major source of difference. French said Dave and Sherri Frohriep, a couple from the Upper Peninsula, stocked up on ammo day before the election because they were worried former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would win, while a liberal woman from East Lansing named Lisa King stocked up on contraceptives in case Trump won.
The majority of the documentary participants, regardless of political affiliation, listed family as one of their top concerns. Public Policy graduate students Emma Dolce and Aloka Narayanan attended the event, and said they were not particularly surprised that people featured in the film had similar values.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily an issue of shared values because people value similar things in their lives,” she said. “It’s an issue of what policy decisions do we want to employ enact to those values.”
Narayanan, who is originally from California, was interested in hearing about the differences between Michigan residents. She said her initial perception was that Michigan was less divided than California, but she began to think otherwise after seeing the film.
“I think that there’s always common ground, and that’s something that I actually found after coming to Michigan,” Narayanan said. “I’m liberal, and I didn’t have any Republican friends in California since high school, but coming here I realized that I have some friends who are moderate and have different political opinions than I do and I think that there’s totally a way to be friends with somebody or share values like family and have fun together and things like that — that’s a way to find an in to bridge a gap.”
Dolce, who is from Ann Arbor, said living in a liberal city can sometimes feel like a bubble.
“I’m pretty heavily invested in Michigan politics and local politics, and I’ve kind of seen divides like this develop for a while and I kind of came to remind myself of those because I think it’s easy to live in the bubble of campus and the bubble of Ann Arbor,” Dolce said. “It’s important to recognize that other people have different views and different thoughts than me and I was curious about what those thoughts and ideas were.”
Dolce noted the film failed to include a participant from Detroit, which she said was an important perspective to take into consideration. Narayanan said she wished the film would have included more discussion of racial divides and equity problems, saying that they were key factors in the political issues that tend to divide people most.
“I wish that there was a little bit more of a discussion about the racial lines and equity lines that divide us because I think that that might be able to get at the core of ways to have conversations that will take us to a more positive place to bridge the gap,” she said. “We’re talking about where we’re different and where we have shared values but not necessarily the differences in our values that come from the fact that we have racial backgrounds.”