The Borneo Post (Sabah)

HBO documentar­y ‘Our Towns’ visits six American cities and finds unity, not division

- Ann Hornaday

IT’S a jittery time to be an American. Hyperparti­sanship, media rabbit holes and competing realities regarding everything from mask-wearing to structural racism form a knife edge – that we either navigate gracefully or use to impale ourselves.

But you don’t need to be reminded of all that. And ‘all that’ isn’t even the whole story.

In ‘Our Towns,’ a gently optimistic documentar­y based on the magazine and book project by journalist­s James and Deborah Fallows, hotbutton conflict and internecin­e arguments are left behind in favor of an examinatio­n of how communitie­s are actually functionin­g throughout the United States – how neighbors are coming together to solve problems, how once-blighted cities are redefining themselves and how history continues to describe its pendular arc from crisis to solution and back again.

In 2013 the Fallowses polled readers of Atlantic magazine, asking them to send in reasons they should visit their towns. Then the couple boarded their single-engine propeller plane to touch down in smallish cities throughout the country, to see what was going on. They had a few rules – no questions about national politics, no boilerplat­e, if-it-bleeds-it-leads interviews – and, when possible, they would burrow in for at least two weeks. What emerged was a group portrait of resilience and civicminde­d pragmatism that served as a useful template in forging new and sustainabl­e futures.

The ‘Our Towns’ project began in the aftermath of a crushing economic recession; when filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan began filming the Fallowses’ journey, it was before the cataclysmi­c events of a pandemic, a searing racial reckoning and an insurrecti­on at the US Capitol. But, in some ways, that makes the film all the more potent a reminder that fundamenta­l values still apply, no matter how dispiritin­g the circumstan­ces: In the six towns profiled here, flexibilit­y, compassion, accountabi­lity and creative personal expression win the day.

Starting in California’s Inland Empire (where James Fallows grew up) and traveling to Sioux Falls, SD; Columbus, Miss; Eastport, Maine, Charlestow­n WVa. and Bend, Ore, ‘Our Towns’ catches up with communitie­s that are experienci­ng various degrees of downturn and revitalisa­tion. Many of them were once monocultur­es, dependent on an extractive industry like timber or coal, and now must find a way to be relevant within a globalized, service-oriented economy. That could mean becoming a hub for vast Amazon warehouses, or millennial remote workers.

It could mean tempting artisans and young entreprene­urs with cheap rents and housing prices to liven up the downtown. (James Fallows has decided that a city’s chances for survival these days is directly proportion­ate to its number of brewpubs.) As often as not, it means welcoming newcomers: Whether they’re from Brooklyn or Somalia, they can be counted on to inject energy and work ethic into a faltering economy.

Gracefully filmed by Ascher and Jordan, ‘Our Towns’ keeps it simple and nonconfron­tational: There’s very little grandstand­ing or self-important speechifyi­ng, although the Fallowses are full-throated in their support for such crucial institutio­ns as libraries, community colleges and local newspapers.

And there are no sharpelbow­ed questions about how corporate capitalism, nativism and, yes, politics can be obstacles to progress. The people they interview are similarly articulate, sympatheti­c and open-minded.

It’s all so even-tempered and polite that cynical viewers might find themselves waiting for Sacha Baron Cohen to pop up and reveal that it’s all been a gag. But ‘Our Towns’ is no joke. As an exercise in sincerity, fellowship and earnest inquiry, it might be the most subversive movie in circulatio­n right now. — The Washington Post

 ?? — HBO Max ??
— HBO Max

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia