Once a week, we’ll pick out one of Fancast’s many full-length free feature films to spotlight. Sure, you’ll check out the big stuff like Drop Zone, Dudley Do-Right and The Man Who Cried, but the smaller movies need shout-outs, too.
The movie of the week is Independent America: The Two-Lane Search for Mom & Pop, a documentary following journalists Hanson Hosein and his wife Heather Hughes as they travel across the country through 32 states following two major rules.
1.) They can’t use any interstates: they can only travel on secondary highways and country roads.
2.) They can only do business with mom & pop stores – no Wal-Marts, no McDonald’s, No Holiday Inns, no chain franchises at all.
In the process, they discover a growing discontent with corporate America’s homogenization of the country, to the point of vandalism and fighting back against their omnipresence. Watch the movie, and then check out our Q&A with Hosein to go deeper into the story.
Q&A WITH DIRECTOR HANSON HOSEIN
Q. What would you say to someone sitting down to watch this film for the first time, knowing nothing about it?
Hanson Hosein: That it represents a more complex, thoughtful American than we are accustomed to see represented in the media — especially in the so-called “heartland,” which often gets simplified. On the surface, it’s a story about a married couple on a road trip across America seeking tell the story about Mom & Pop businesses on the ropes against corporate competitors. But deeper, it’s an expression of growing misgivings by Americans in the powerful institutions — often situated thousands of miles away — in which they once placed so much faith. These misgivings have only deepened since the economic crisis began.
Q. What inspired you to take this trip and make this film? How did you discover your subjects, and how hard were they to find given the massive corporate presence in this country?
Hanson Hosein: As I left behind my career at NBC News to start my own business, I realized that I was looking for courage and inspiration from my own small town merchants (who were fast becoming our friends). I also began to bristle at the encroaching ugliness of the big box stores where we lived, and sought refuge in the trips we would take by only taking secondary roads and only doing business with Mom & Pop. They were such rewarding experiences, I concluded that I should make it a nationwide expedition and film a documentary about it.
So my wife Heather and I first roughed out an itinerary, based on a few towns along the way that had ongoing conflicts over Mom & Pop vs. Big Boxes. Then we started a blog (which in 2005, was still fairly novel), and began to share our intentions with the world. As we kicked off our trip, people began to follow us, and suggested places we should go. Half of the film actually came from these suggestions: Starbucks vandalism in Colorado, the Wal-Mart referendum in Arizona, Cleveland Heights’ “de-Mom&Popification,” even the small town 4th of July capital in Seward, Nebraska — that was all crowd-sourced. The best stories came from places where there was less population density (and hence less reason for big box stores to set up shop). And to a certain extent, Wal-Mart helped shape the trip as they were incredibly forthcoming: granting us both an interview at their head office in Arkansas, and to their stores and TV commercials. Although that may seem odd, they knew, given how we were publicly sharing our reporting, that we would be tough, but fair.
Q. How did the project come together? Was it difficult to get this film off the ground and into production? What were the major challenges?
Hanson Hosein: Yes, it was a labor of love. I was absolutely driven to make this film in between being embedded as a war correspondent for NBC during Operation Iraqi Freedom, and my last tour of duty with the network in Baghdad in 2004. But no network would go far enough to give us the funds we needed to get it done. I gave up on it several times, only to have friends and acquaintances resurrect it with questions and suggestions. Suddenly, by chance, my dad met Tom Powers in Toronto, who offered to partner with us with some funding. It wasn’t enough money to put together a team to make the film, but I knew that I had just enough production skills to shoot, edit and blog the film myself. So that’s what we did, along with some further assistance from my family. With just enough funding, skill, inspiration and frustration with the powers-that-be, we hit the road. I guess it was just meant to happen. And thanks to our foolish naivete, and Tom’s enterprising salesmanship, it did!
Fundamentally, the major challenge — other than money — was that we just didn’t know whether the film would ever see the light of day. Who would want to see it? How would we get it out? Did we even have a good story? These crises of confidence would hit us from time to time on the lonely road (we almost turned back in Austin). But it didn’t dissuade us from relying on the kindness of strangers in the smallest of towns, to tell them about our quest, switch on the camera, and tell their stories. And that made all the difference.
Q. How did the people respond to being followed around by cameras? Did you encounter much resistance?
Hanson Hosein: I love telling stories about Americans because (a) there are great stories to be told; (b) Americans are forthcoming and generous [I was born in England and grew up in Canada; Heather’s from Seattle]. And I think they were quite drawn to the romanticism of our road trip. It’s a quintessentially American thing to hit to the road to find oneself, or to just start all over again. When we explain our mission to folks, they really dug that. That also explains why we got a healthy amount of local media coverage as we wound our way through the country. So this mixed race married couple encountered very little resistance (the dog helped as an icebreaker, a trick I learned from John Steinbeck’s “My Travels with Charley.”). Only one local politician refused to sign an appearance release because he didn’t want to be “Michael Moored.” But it didn’t matter because the town hall meeting where we filmed him was also being broadcast, and he was a public figure.
Q. Have there been any new developments since you finished the film in the lives of the people you profiled? Have you kept in contact with them?
Hanson Hosein: It’s been a few years since we completed Independent America. Since then, the community-owned “The Merc” in Powell, Wyoming became a poster child for sustainable, local retail; the Main Street folks in Marion, Virginia continue to resurrect their town. Meanwhile, the “Local First” movement has gone mainstream, Wal-Mart has worked hard to be perceived in a positive fashion (and has largely succeeded), Borders is struggling, Starbucks over-expanded and found religion in going back to basics. In many ways, a lot has changed since we made the movie.
Q. Are there any particular scenes you like the best, or that you think audiences should really take note of?
Hanson Hosein: I’m especially proud of the animated scenes. We take complicated economic concepts and explain them simply, and effectively. It’s always hard to make the argument that corporate chain retail isn’t always the best solution for your community, because folks focus on the cheap prices and the jobs associated with those stores. But they need to see what’s happening behind the scenes as well.
I also really enjoy the richness of the scene in Pioche, Nevada. We just happened to be passing through, and suddenly we had all these great interviews with folks who were driving two hundred miles to shop at Wal-Mart, while their only local store was facing financial oblivion. It was always important to me that we didn’t pass judgment or tell people what to do. We still shop at Big Box stores, and we understand their value. So we wanted to explain why Americans were motivated to shop at Wal-Mart, even as they were well aware that they were sometimes hurting their neighbors. We all do it.
Oh, and Seligman, Arizona. What a cool town, what a great way to explain why secondary highways are so important to Mom & Pop — especially through the Mother Road, Route 66. When Pixar’s Cars came out a few years later, I recognized it as the animated version of Independent America!
Q. How about any scenes that were particularly challenging to shoot?
Hanson Hosein: A couple. We were taking a short break in Albuquerque, New Mexico when it dawned upon me that we didn’t capture the opposing viewpoint in the Wal-Mart referendum fight in Flagstaff, Arizona. So we actually drove BACK to Flagstaff (5 hours) to get the interview with the property rights advocate who supported Wal-Mart, and then drove back that same day. It was brutal.
And believe it or not, the first day of shooting was really tough. We arrived in Port Townsend, WA just before lunch to catch a Chamber of Commerce meeting where they just happened to be debating the merits of a local law that would restrict corporate chains in the town center. We shot a few heated arguments, and then connected with a few townspeople for interviews that afternoon. In the evening, they had a city hall debate over the law all over again! We didn’t finish shooting until 10 p.m.. In many ways, what was happening in Port Townsend struck to the heart of the story, so I felt compelled to edit a short “news” film for our blog the next day, while Heather drove us through to Oregon. We didn’t have GPS or smartphones at the time, so we ended up searching high and low for a coffee shop that had free wi-fi so we could upload the film to our site. YouTube wouldn’t launch for a few more months (man, it would have all been so much easier a few years later with iPhones, Facebook, Twitter), so the technical challenges throughout where huge. And as a team of two, shooting, editing, blogging all day and into the night just took a toll.
Q. What would you say is the overall message you’d like people to take away from the film?
Hanson Hosein: Local matters. Local accountability matters. Relationships with our merchants matter — it builds trust in a country that sorely needs trust right now, and it actually makes for a more sustainable, healthy economy. Mom & Pop are the core of a vibrant community. I learned that a few years later when I shot Rising From Ruins, the sequel to Independent America. In post-Katrina New Orleans, it was small, independent retail that was first to come back and help rebuild. It’s okay to shop at Costco and Wal-Mart, but let’s not forget to support our local merchants too. The economic benefit is huge, and the price difference is not as great as you might think!