Town Hall: Film Review
Seattle International Film Festival
Sierra Pettengill, Jamila Wignot
Two Tea Party activists speak for themselves in a new documentary.
SEATTLE — Two Pennsylvania activists offer a window into the Tea Party in Town Hall, a doc by Sierra Pettengill and Jamila Wignot that reserves judgment and lets the subjects do almost all the talking themselves. While the film offers little new insight into the motivations and complaints of the varied people making up this political movement, it does viewers a service with its relaxed approach, moving beyond sound bites and getting to know two individuals representing the most vocal part of the scene. Respectful attention should be paid at fests; TV exhibition would be a welcome addition to the medium's often superficial coverage of the phenomenon.
Katy Abram, who had no background in government or activism, became a policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity after attracting attention when her impassioned Town Hall complaint to Arlen Specter -- "I don't want this country turning into Russia" -- was televised. John Stahl, of the Berks Tea Party, is a retired salesman who has held elected office. Both get plentiful screen time here as they work to rally conservatives during the 2012 election.
Stahl is heard early on comparing the local Tea Party factions by saying, "Ours is the sane group -- that's the redneck group." But he's the one who seems closer to extreme behavior -- as when he "monitors" a polling location by asking anyone with brown skin if they were born here or are naturalized citizens -- and who seems to have some mental challenges connecting his own willingness to let his elderly, infirm mother become a "ward of the state" to the "socialist" policies he rails against.
Abram's approach is more conventional. A former liberal who says she "didn't know who [she] was" until she met her conservative husband, she has a convert's zeal, planting election signs, making phone calls and giving interviews.
We spend enough time with both to get a sense of them as people, but those not already sympathetic to their politics will find little here to convince them. We hear a great deal about the fear that America has lost its way, that we're "losing our liberties," but generalizations far outweigh specific complaints. Perhaps it's that the activists feel that job has already been done: In many shots out car windows, we see beautiful heartland scenery while listening to the voices of talk radio list the sins of progressives and the similarities between contemporary America and scary, nanny-state Europe.
Production Companies: Town Hall Films, ITVS
Directors-Producers: Sierra Pettengill, Jamila Wignot
Executive producer: Sally Jo Fifer
Director of photography: Zachary Heinzerling
Music: Erik Carlson / Area C
Editor: Cindy Lee
No rating, 74 minutes