Reel Progress: This Divided State
Filmmaker chronicles Moore, Hannity visits to Utah
By Emily Hawkins, Campus Progress
Since he dropped out of Brigham Young University last semester, Steven Greenstreet has taken calls from Paramount Pictures, Focus Films, and MTV. He’s done high profile interviews on CNN, ABC and NPR, and has been written up in USA Today and The Chicago Tribune. All because some students at another area college decided to invite a famous film director to speak at their campus.
This Divided State, a feature-length documentary filmed, directed, and produced by Greenstreet, is all over the media these days, before a single commercial showing of the film. Campus Progress’s proud full disclosure: We are making plans with Greenstreet to show the film at a series of campus screening around the country. Stay tuned for that.
This Divided State was born in late September, 2004, when Greenstreet heard that Fahrenheit 911 director Michael Moore had been invited to speak at Utah Valley State College (UVSC) just up the road from Brigham Young. On a hunch, which he calls “a filmmaker’s intuition,�? he grabbed his camera and two batteries and headed to UVSC in search of controversy. Two maxed-out credit cards and an empty bank account later, Greenstreet’s intuition is paying off: His $45,000 documentary is creating national buzz.
When he arrived at UVSC, the campus was awhirl in activity. “War was declared, lines were drawn, and the community was torn in two,�? Greenstreet says. He connected with a group of media students and, with a total of nine cameras, they started rolling and didn’t stop for three months.
The school and the surrounding community of Orem were quickly immersed in a free speech debate of epic proportions. Utah Valley, where Orem is located, is one of the most conservative counties in one of the most conservative states in the country. Often called the “Happy Valley,�? it is home to a high concentration of members of the Mormon Church, and it is estimated that anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of students at UVSC are Mormon.
It’s not the first time this small town college has had to confront the conflict, generally speaking, between the values of the community and those of the school. In 2002, an influential local man named Kay Anderson called the police about a concert at the school put on by rapper Nelly. Outraged because he could hear Nelly “shouting the F-word�? from his neighboring home, he asked that all of the school administrators and Nelly be arrested immediately. Though no legal action was filed, Anderson publicly called for the excommunication from the Mormon church of the school’s event planner, who faced so much scrutiny following the concert that he had to pull his kids out of school and move out of Orem.
The same Kay Anderson emerges in a similar role in This Divided State, a 90-minute film culled from the 67-odd hours Greenstreet and his crew shot over the course of three months. The film has no voice-over narrative and needs none; the eclectic cast of characters speaks for itself, and the story unfolds in a sometimes comical, sometimes touching chronicle of the controversy.
Anderson, a wealthy Orem real estate broker, offers the school a $25,000 cashier’s check if it will cancel the Moore event. When that fails, Anderson goes after the student body president and vice president, claiming they misused school funds. Then there is the Sean Hannity speaking event arranged by the college on the fly in an attempt to appease the local community. The event, though an animated flurry of “Hannitization,�? is nothing compared to the scene where his bodyguard ends up pinning Greenstreet against a wall for asking an unsavory question. Meanwhile, we get repeated commentary from the campus Michael Moore look-alike, who does not share Moore’s politics but takes pride in his uncanny resemblance, keeping his hair short because “Michael keeps his short.�?
In another scene, a student tells the community that it should be ashamed of itself for trying to run Moore out of town for his differing views and reminds fellow Mormons of their own history of persecution in Utah. Regardless of their politics, many students and teachers speak out in favor of tolerance. Greenstreet supposes that this may be particular to the Mormon faith and a reflection of the experiences of students and faculty who served on traditional Mormon missions away from home between the ages of 19 and 21.
“They’re going to a foreign country where people do not agree with them and where people might not like them, knocking on doors saying, ‘I know you don’t agree with me, but listen to me.’ And essentially, Michael Moore was coming to Utah saying, ‘I know you don’t agree with me, but listen to me,’ and a lot of these students and faculty who had served on missions said, ‘Hey, isn’t that what we did? Aren’t those the values we stuck up for and served two years of our lives for?’ That level of common sense was rooted in these kids and faculty.�?
Though he says he tried to be as impartial as possible in relating the events behind this loaded controversy, Greenstreet doesn’t believe there is such a thing as total objectivity. “As human beings, we’re not robots,�? Greenstreet says. “We’re programmed to think in certain ways and we can’t go into any situation completely unbiased, and I did not go into this film completely unbiased. But I went into this film recognizing that, and I found myself fighting myself and my own personal beliefs to withhold those from the film.�?
The 25-year old Greenstreet moved to Utah to begin working in film after returning from his two-year Mormon mission in Venezuela. When the work tapered off, he enrolled at Brigham Young. Greenstreet describes himself as politically active, but his personal politics have gone through a number of transitions. In 2000, he attended President Bush’s first inauguration as “a very kind of moderate, politically apathetic person – I didn’t care for either side.�? But that all changed, he says when “I went from political apathy to watching Howard Dean during the primaries, and I was like, that guy is what I want to be. I know that guy represents me. It was just a spark. I registered as a Democrat.�? Now, however he says that the film has moderated him and he would no longer describe himself as a liberal Democrat, though he still considers himself to be a progressive.
As a progressive Mormon at the foremost Mormon university in the country, Greenstreet often felt out of place. “There’s this thought that you can either vote Republican or evil…this general unspoken opinion that you shouldn’t be a liberal Mormon, that it conflicts with the religion,�? Greenstreet says.
He feels that the film defeats the notion that Mormons cannot be progressive. Although much of the community did not support UVSC’s decision to host Michael Moore, there was an impressive number of students and faculty who rallied in defense of free speech. Early in the film a conservative community member stands in front of a room full of angry Orem residents and delivers a simple but key message, “The speech we should support the most is the speech we hate the most.�?
Despite the fact that the students and faculty prevailed in their pursuit of free speech when Moore was able to speak, Greenstreet sees a larger lesson to be gleaned from the film. Though many people across the political spectrum argued for tolerance and free speech, some clearly did not. People on both sides got angry and bitter. And at the film’s end, we learn that, though the Moore event went on, it extracted a personal toll from key players in the controversy. Greenstreet argues that though that goal of hosting Moore ultimately was achieved, “it’s not about the goal, it’s about the process,�? and the process, mired as it was in intolerance and hate, he argues was not healthy. He says that the lesson he hopes people take away is that “we need to force ourselves to understand people with opposing views and that requires having civil conversations with them and getting to know them before we begin our crusade to put each other down.�?
The film premiered on February 4th at the Ragan Theater at UVSC. Both the 400-seat theatre and overflow area were sold out for the event. It received a standing ovation, though not from Kay Anderson, who actually honored Greenstreet’s invitation, but reportedly left in a hurry. On his way out, when asked by a reporter to comment on the film, Anderson said, “Well, Steve succeeded in making everyone look stupid.�? To which Greenstreet later replied, “If I did anything to make people look stupid, it was just to hit the record button.�?
In aftermath of the controversy and following the film premiere, Greenstreet says that there has been an “eye-opening of progressive thought.�? Directly following the screening, Professor Phil Gordon, communication department chair at UVSC and co-producer of This Divided State. made an announcement that Eve Ensler’s play Vagina Monologues would be performed to UVSC. Though Gordon was initially lambasted for using the word “vagina,�? the play has been overwhelmingly well-received.
Greenstreet is working to manage his new-found fame. He constantly receives emails and phone calls from people he doesn’t know congratulating him on the film and asking them how they can get a copy. He received an email from a US soldier fighting in Afghanistan who had read about the film and seen the trailer. He wanted to know how he could get a copy and thanked Greenstreet for the film, which he wrote was about “the kinds of freedoms we are fighting for over here.�?
Not every response or consequence has been positive, however. Greenstreet has received threatening emails and phone calls and worries that he will get home late at night to find that someone has broken in.
Perhaps the most discouraging turn of events came this week. Critical to UVSC President William A. Sederburg’s plans for the college has been the development of a digital learning center (DLC). Prior to the Michael Moore controversy, the item was at the top of the list of budgetary priorities for both the Board of Regents and the Legislature. This week, when the legislature’s new priority list came out, however, the DLC was missing. Though it was not in the film, there is an assertion that early on in the controversy one of the State legislators threatened to bury the plans for the DLC if the school did not rescind Michael Moore’s invitation. In fact, a Utah paper quotes John Valentine, President of the Utah State Senate, as saying, “I feel that UVSC is a strong institution, but it is getting harder and harder to defend against things like the gambling class, sexual orientation class, [and] the Michael Moore situation.” Greenstreet was disappointed when he heard the news and is encouraging everyone who visits his website to take action by calling the Board of Regents or the State Senate.
Meanwhile, Greenstreet is moving ahead to get his film seen. In addition to hooking up with Campus Progress for a college screening tour of This Divided State, he has sent the film out to 18 A-list film distributors and taken meetings with a number of them. Like any self-respecting filmmaker, Greenstreet has formed his own production company, Minority Films, a name that complements his film’s message, derived from the Mormon experience: I know you don’t agree with me, but listen to me.
A student from Africa weighs in on banning Michael Moore
The compassionate conservatism of Sean Hannity
Kay Anderson defends the “conservative community.”
Kay Anderson’s offer to stop Moore
Ken Brown, Michael Moore look-alike
The trailer for This Divided State