Show Me Democracy: Director Dan Parris Previews His New Documentary [+ Exclusive Clip]
I have never been this politically engaged and active. And I’m one of those people who turned 18, registered to vote, and then voted the very next month. Before the November 2016 election, I thought I was doing my part. I make sure I’m registered, I research candidates and issues and try to vote every time I’m able to. But with the election of Trump, I realized I hadn’t been doing enough. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say I feel like I have to stay informed to know which rights or protections Trump and his administration are trying to strip from me, my friends or my family every day.
While there are many issues affecting us on a national level, local governance is often important in our everyday lives. So, I’ve started following my local representatives on social media and I know where they stand on issues that matter to me. It’s a lot of work and I know some people have disengaged completely. I don’t feel like I can do that, though. So, among other things, I’ve been trying to find great programming to highlight how we’re dealing with this (often) new and constant turmoil. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of good stuff out there. But what sets this film apart for me is not only the focus on how Millennials can influence policy, and the political landscape at large, but the personal connection the people we meet in the film have to these issues.
Show Me Democracy documents the efforts of The Scholarship Foundationâ€™sÂ EducationÂ PolicyÂ InternshipÂ Program,Â which empowersÂ studentsÂ toÂ researchÂ educationÂ policyÂ issues thatÂ affectÂ themÂ andÂ theirÂ peers,Â andÂ toÂ coordinateÂ efforts toÂ influenceÂ publicÂ policyÂ aroundÂ increasingÂ post-secondary educational access for low-income students. The documentary follows the internsâ€™ initial frustrations with police brutality and failingÂ schoolÂ systems;Â theirÂ firstÂ meetingsÂ asÂ aÂ team;Â one studentâ€™sÂ experienceÂ ofÂ beingÂ tear-gassedÂ onÂ theÂ streetsÂ of Ferguson; and the groupâ€™s visits with Missouri representatives.
I had the chance to speak exclusively to director Dan Parris about importance of Ferguson and St. Louis in the national conversation on politics and policing, the urgency of students advocating for other students, the power of protest and more.
TV GOODNESS: Millennials have this huge potential to influence policy and affect the future of politics on our country. What made you want to tell this story and why is now the right time?
Dan Parris: “What made me want to tell this story is me growing up in St. Louis and just knowing the disparity and the inequality and the separation in our city, stepping my foot in it and being involved as a mentor and smaller things like that. But then when Michael Brown was killed I was like, â€˜Wow. The international attention thatâ€™s been coming to my city about these issues of inequalityâ€¦maybe Iâ€™ll just make a film about this.â€™
I went up to Ferguson first; itâ€™s about 25 minutes from where I live. I realized really quickly there are so many cameras there and that the story was gonna be told already and that maybe it wasnâ€™t my role to play. I had been to Ferguson one time in my life.
But then two months later we heard gunshots [outside] our home in South St. Louis and we found out that a young man named Vonderrit Myers was killed by an off-duty police officer just blocks from our house. The next day a protest came by our front door saying, â€˜Out of your homes, into the streets. Out of your homes, into the streets.â€™ So we came out and I started filming.
I had made documentaries, one called What Matters about me and my friends trying to live in extreme poverty on a dollar a day across the US, Europe and Africa. And I made another one about another country in Africa and a faith home there. So I had done these documentaries in other countries, but Iâ€™d never done social justice documentaries in my hometown.
As I started going out and documenting what was going on in the Black Lives Matter movement and the protest, I also came across this program where young students were learning advocacy work. Iâ€™d gotten a scholarship myself from the Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis that runs this program. So I showed up with a camera and started filming and I realized, â€˜Wow. These young people, these students are advocating for other students.â€™ And as I talked to them, some of them grew up in Ferguson, some of them had personal connections to all that was going on in Ferguson, but they were also passionate about other issues of education. Seeing the connection between the disparity in education and what was happening around the Ferguson movement, it became the full story.
I knew other people were telling a story about Michael Brown or about the movement, but I wanted to tell the story about how young people can make an impact and how every person needs to figure out what that role may be. This seemed like a great chance to highlight both the protest side of things and the policy side of things.”
TV GOODNESS: Tell me a little bit about how you found Faith Sandler. I know after you had that initial meeting with her, you decided you wanted to start documenting what she was doing, but how did you hear about her?
Dan: “I received a scholarship from the organization sheâ€™s the executive director of, so I had just paid off my loan. They give interest free loans to students who have financial need and that helped me go to college. She had seen my previous documentary and actually showed it to the staff at the foundation. So we stay in touch.
I have a company called Pick Up Productions. We do client work for non-profits and so I was meeting with her to do a totally unrelated project. Then she told me about this advocacy internship. It sounded very interesting. I was like, â€˜When does this thing start?â€™ Sheâ€™s like, â€˜In an hour.â€™ I ran home, got my camera, ran back and just started filming.”
TV GOODNESS: One thing that comes across very strongly and very clearly in the film is just how important access to education is and also making sure that low-income and underrepresented students have the resources and support they need to attend school. It sounds like as you were making this film, that became important for you to show as well. Can you talk about that?
Dan: “I would say in a lot of ways, thatâ€™s the part of the story Iâ€™m most passionate about.
Thereâ€™s a school in my neighborhood where I went to the graduation, I think thereâ€™s 100 or 150 students. This is a public school in the city and only 3 students got over a 21 on the ACT and they were celebrating that in the program brochure. And thatâ€™s probably a huge achievement considering the situation these kids come from, but where I went to school people didnâ€™t notice you unless you had over a 30. Thatâ€™s the disparity in the quality of education thatâ€™s happening just miles away from each other. Thereâ€™s a lot of different reasons for that, but it has historical implications.
Right now, literally you cross a street, they call it the Delmar Divide in St. Louis. You cross that and youâ€™re in a whole other city. The houses look different. Literally the expected age of living can drop 25, 30 years within a mile. The household income can drop $50,000 a year. It goes from an area where most people have Masterâ€™s to an area where most people have just a high school diploma. And itâ€™s just crossing the street.
Thereâ€™s historical reasons for that, but I donâ€™t think thereâ€™s any reason it should still be this way in our day and age. I think a lot of it has to do with education all the way from early childhood, but also access to college. These students who work their butts off, get a 21, go to community college or a smaller college, but then arenâ€™t prepared or they do go there and they succeed, but they leave in debt. They donâ€™t have the same kind of connections and relationships that maybe come from somebodyâ€™s dad who works in a corporate field and helps him get a paid internship. Weâ€™re putting students into poverty more so by going to higher education.
In Missouri, theyâ€™re giving less and less money to low-income students and more and more money to kids who score high on the ACT. Itâ€™s called Bright Flight. Are those really the brightest students or are those the students with the most opportunity?
The interns did the research that pops up in the film. Nobody else did that research. They went to the Missouri Department of Higher Education and found out that 20 high schools are getting one third of these Bright Flight scholarships. These are mostly private schools, mostly white schools and mostly wealthy schools. Schools I grew up in. All thatâ€™s to say thereâ€™s a deep disparity in education and I donâ€™t think itâ€™s an accident that Michael Brown went to Normandy High School, which was an unaccredited high school in our city. To me, the Ferguson uprising wasnâ€™t just about that one incident. It was about everything surrounding it including these disparities in education.”
EXCLUSIVE CLIP: Karina discusses DACA, the astronomical costs of college for undocumented students and how pending legislation will further hurt them
TV GOODNESS: Letâ€™s talk about the interns. I thought they were incredibly compelling. How did you decide how much time to spend with them and how much of their personal lives you wanted to include?
Dan: “The personal life piece was pretty interesting. Basically whoever would be most open, I went with them. I was like, â€˜Hey, can I come to your family Thanksgiving?â€™ And they were like, â€˜Nah. Iâ€™m good.â€™ [Laughs.] I was like, â€˜Ok.â€™ Then other people were like, â€˜Yeah. Come on over.â€™ Karina was like, â€˜Come to my familyâ€™s house. Meet my grandma. Have tamales.â€™ Robert was like, â€˜Hey, come down to where I grew up and where I hang out and meet some of the guys down here.â€™ And Brittany was like, â€˜Show them everything.â€™ So I was like, â€˜Alright. Iâ€™ll tell a lot.â€™
And thereâ€™s so much more I couldâ€™ve filmed. It couldâ€™ve been an entirely different film with much more of a backstory that [was] more personal, but I decided to go more of a route where I wanted to be entertaining but also informative and personal, but also informational or targeted on the issues, which were a character in and of themselves. Thereâ€™s a lot to cover and so it didnâ€™t really go into personal quite as much as I would like.
Brittany represents the protestorâ€™s side of things and the activist side of things and sheâ€™s also a mother. Robert represents an African-American man growing up just like the neighborhoods where Michael Brown grew up. And then Karina represents the connection to immigrants and undocumented students. I needed at least one person with a personal story to connect with the larger topics I was trying to address.”
TV GOODNESS: In your directorâ€™s statement, you talk about coming from a place of privilege even though you have had hardships. Do you feel like that impacted the way you told the story and did you find that that caused any problems or did that help you when you were making this?
Dan: “There are other documentaries about the Ferguson movement that have come out or are coming out. Those are from an insider perspective, but I thought there would be something beneficial coming from an outsider perspective. One of the biggest things, I think, is providing context that I feel like a lot of people where I came from donâ€™t know. They donâ€™t know about the history of restrictive covenants that separated St. Louis. They donâ€™t know about how the loss of the manufacturing industry more dramatically impacted the black community. Different issues like that. If you donâ€™t have those in mind, youâ€™re gonna be quick to jump to conclusions about the Ferguson uprising.
Iâ€™ve only seen one of the other films but I think mine may be one of the only ones that goes into a historical, animated narrative about the background. So thatâ€™s one thing I think was helpful in terms of perspective. Maybe it helped to ask questions and focus on different things, so it was beneficial. But I also think it was detrimental. I put my foot in my mouth a few times. I got different people upset at me.
I remember one time we were doing a protest and I tried to offer a suggestion to Brittany and she shot it down real quick. It was a funny moment. â€˜What if we did thisâ€¦?â€™ Sheâ€™s like, â€œNope,â€™ and kept moving. [Laughs.] ‘Yeah. Shut up, Dan, and just film.’ [Laughs.] Stay in your lane.
Having different life experiences, different levels of understandingâ€¦ the cool thing is every time I put my foot in my mouth, I learned something. That was a growth process for me and I hope maybe they took something from spending time with me or I made them think about something.”
TV GOODNESS: Is there one thing you want people to take away from this film?
Dan: “With all my films I love people to watch the film and then ask themselves two questions. First, what breaks their heart? What did they see in this film, whether it’s police accountability or lack of education for low-income students or for undocumented students. One of these things [is] the disparity of cities like St. Louis. What did they see in our film? What is it that breaks their heart and then ask themselves the second question. What makes them come alive? What do they love doing? What is something that when they spend time with it time just flies by. Itâ€™s maybe a gift or a talent they have ever since they can remember. How can they take that gift or talent and the thing that breaks their heart and connect those two and make an impact?
Aristotle said, â€˜Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, therein lies your vocation.â€™ So I think itâ€™s an age-old idea of how to find your purpose and, for me, I hope people see the film and think, what is my role in democracy? What breaks my heart about the political system? What makes me come alive when I get involved politically? Where do I fit into the puzzle?
I think a secondary thing is I want people who are very skeptical or even angry at the Ferguson uprising, the movement for Black Lives or however you want to phrase the changing tide in our culture, I just want them to listen and consider other peopleâ€™s perspectives and to consider some of the historical implications as well as the current situation. I would challenge people just to listen and consider these other voices.”
TV GOODNESS: I really enjoyed this documentary, so I hope a lot of people watch it. Any final thoughts?
Dan: “We want to have about 300 educational community screenings. We’ve done about 20 already. If anybodyâ€™s interested, they can contact us on the website to consider doing a screening and maybe bring some of the characters out to have an event.”
Edited for space and content.
Show Me Democracy premieres Saturday, April 29th ant 9/8c on Fuse.
Want to host a screening of the film in your community? Go to www.showmedemocracy.com.
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