The Films: Independent America

It was the story I wanted to tell — without market research or a clear idea who might want to hear it. Powerless and on the periphery in 2004, I felt drawn to small business owners in my town — having recently become one myself. But I couldn’t understand why the world favored big boxes, corporate chains and soulless transactions that afforded neither agency nor accountability.

At that same time, digital production technology was becoming more accessible. Having declared my own independence from “big box media” as a former NBC News journalist that year, I wanted to explore whether I could extend a similar reach, without the corporate megaphone or deep pockets.Group shot before trip.jpgPut the two together, and you have a documentary as road trip of a young married couple and their dog, filming, blogging and streaming along the way when such things were not obvious (YouTube was unveiled months later). It led to the front page of Yahoo! News for two weeks, and was one of the first documentaries Hulu picked up.  It was broadcast in the USA, Australia, Japan and Canada. It won film festival accolades. And what was intended as a eulogy for “Mom & Pop” revealed an even bigger story: Americans were losing faith in their big institutions, so far flung and seemingly out-of-touch. The warning signs Heather Hughes and I observed in “Independent America: The Two-Lane Search for Mom & Pop” would lead to a raging storm a decade later.

Hanson shoots silhouette.jpgSpeaking of storms, we had intended to visit New Orleans on the first film, but detoured to Bentonville, Arkansas where Wal-Mart HQ had offered us an interview. Two months later, Hurricane Katrina devastated that city. Local entrepreneurs were the first to return and rebuild, and yet big reconstruction money favored big players. “Independent America: Rising from Ruins” was a film about resilience and the fortitude of a local community’s business owners. Their survival is crucial to our survival. When a massive disaster hits, who are you going to call?

Thanks to our creative partner and executive producer for both documentaries — Tom Powers –“Rising from Ruins” was also picked up for broadcast, won the New Orleans International Film Festival and even showed up on a fledgling streaming platform known as Netflix.

These were stories that needed to be told at the time — seemingly more relevant than ever today.