catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 2 :: 2006.01.27 — 2006.02.09


The search for hope

Joining various movements for independence?of art, of retail, of thought?is a film that addresses the issue of corporate retail in small town USA called Independent America: The Two-Lane Search for Mom & Pop. The camera follows married television journalists Heather Hughes and Hanson Hosein, along with their black lab Miles, on an extended road trip through the States that has two rules.

  1. All purchasing must be done at independently owned establishments, rather than corporate chains, including accommodations and food.
  2. All travel must be done on backroads?no interstates.

While the tone can be a bit self-centered at times and the animation sequences are an obvious nod to Michael Moore, the quality of the film is generally fine, mixing more formal interviews and narration with the incidental anecdotes of a road trip. From local celebrities along the original Route 66 to a Wal-Mart representative, the film gathers a variety of perspectives on an important issue: the future face of American towns. Is every town destined to look the same in twenty years? There are wonderful moments in the film when the answer for Hughes and Hosein is a definite and hopeful “no.”

However, Independent America embodies some of the problems I see with the “anti-Wal-Mart” movement. When I first heard about it, the title and summary were very exciting to me because, after seeing so many other negative films about Wal-Mart, I thought this one was going to take a positive critical approach by showing viewers the value of Wal-Mart’s opposite: locally-owned stores that build community relationships, value beauty and justice and offer something unique to every town in America. Instead, at least as much of the film is about Wal-Mart as it is about such small businesses. In the end, Independent America introduces too few artifacts of hope to overshadow the doom of the impending corporate takeover.

Perhaps this quality of the film was driven by the concerns of the interviewees, who were overwhelmingly desperate about saving the towns they love, but this is a story that keeps being repeated with few apparent results. Such an “anti” focus perpetuates the polarization that keeps one side fighting to advance the “patriotic” ideology of capitalism and the other side struggling to find the minute chink in the corporate armor. What is needed at this point is media that articulately lifts up those things we value, making what we desire the focus, rather than what we despise. Magazines like Ode and Yes! are making an effort. But even media that does attempt to take a positive approach can end up being problem-oriented as propaganda of an undefined club that doesn’t need to discuss the problem specifically because it already agrees on everything that’s wrong with the world. Material in this category doesn’t illuminate what’s good for its own sake, but as a way of cynically sticking it to the proverbial man, which ultimately just generates more negative energy.

My desire for a positive film about locally-owned business (as opposed to another critique of the Wal-Martization of America) is based on the belief that if artists can find ways to inspire their audiences of the goodness in things that are beautiful and true, then the things that threaten that goodness will be perceived by default as undesirable. This belief is ultimately rooted in a conviction that the victory of Jesus Christ is complete: if Kingdom qualities are more present in community relationship than they are in corporate money-grabbing, we have the assurance that the former will last and the latter will pass away. A disproportionate focus on the problem leads to cynicism and hopelessness.

Of course manifestations of sin should not be entirely ignored, but how do we deal squarely with those manifestations without wilting in despair? I’m on the lookout for films made by Christians or people of other faiths that will address this tension successfully in the area of community development and retail. Independent America is a start in the right direction. I desire that this journey will continue, as much for filmmakers like Hosein and Hughes, as for the audiences who all stand in need a substantial dose of hope.

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