Co-directors Peter Hutchison, Kelly Nyks and Jared Scott talk Requiem for the American Dream
Q: What was the purpose and the goals for the production?
Kelly: When we originally started looking into the concept of building this film, we were excited to find a voice that would be unparalleled in historic accuracy, experience, and relevance to the topic. When we were able to work with Noam Chomsky we were thrilled mainly because this film is a social critique about one of the defining issues of this era and what he has spoken to over the course of 5 or 6 decades. The document essentially focuses on inequality, and we’ve learned that it isn’t an abstract concept. Inequality is something that’s material and impact’s people’s daily experience whether it is through their workplace or their education. This was important to us because inequality has such a broad ranging impact and we wanted to demonstrate it’s defining principles in a way that it doesn’t feel like an arbitrary abstraction. Our goal was to shed light on the mechanisms that put it in place – essentially bringing an understanding of that issue civil society with the hopes that they can understand it at a foundational level and then make the decision on how they wanted to react and respond.
Peter: On another level, Professor Chomsky had a big impact on all of us in terms of the evolution of our political thinking. We wanted to find a way to honour him and his legacy by bringing it alive in a way that was easily digestible. I think that some people experience Chomsky as being overwhelming and daunting, but his ideas are very simple and very important. They haven’t been as relevant as they have been today.
Jared: Speaking to the idea of it being digestible, we wanted to deliver a film that even if you had never heard of Noam Chomsky, you could go in and see a cinematic portrait of a great speaker dismantling broad concepts through remarkable and compelling insights. Then for those people who do know who Professor Chomsky is, well then, they’ve never really seen him like this before. Through his past works, you rarely see him this candid, this open, or this clear before. So, when we structured the film, we wanted to make sure that we covered both of those bases and based on the feedback we got so far, it has been successful.
Q: What did you hope that someone who watches the film takes from it?
Peter: One of the best examples, and what we’ve seen happen already, is when fathers bring their sons to see the documentary. Where the pivotal moment lies is when the movie is done, and the son says that he wants to bring his friends to see the film too. Nothing is more rewarding to me as a filmmaker than to see that transpire as it really speaks to the heart of why we spent so long and worked so hard on this project.
Q: For anyone who has followed Noam Chomsky they’ll know that he was once known to be one of the most dangerous minds in America because his thoughts were radically different and opposing of the state. Throughout the documentary he explains the current economic status of the nation however his bias is not as evident as you would see in other interviews. Was filtering out his passionate stance a challenge when working with him?
Peter: We would first of all like to be perfectly clear that Chomsky gave us no directives whatsoever for making this film. He left the creative and editorial process up to us. It’s an important distinction to make that our film is based on the 10 principals of concentration of wealth and power however these aren’t 10 Principals that Chomsky laid out. We assembled them by digging through the rich material that he provided us and were able to determine that this structure was the best way for it to be easily digestible.
Kelly: I think that what is noteworthy in the question is the very notion and idea of bias. When we say that Chomsky has a bias perspective, well let’s consider what that is bias against. I think that what is compelling about the information he provides, is that it is laid out in terms of mechanics and orchestrated campaigns. He doesn’t lay it out in terms of feeling or sensitivities. That is one of the reasons that why we worked so hard to ensure that we included primary source documents. In a lot of his discussion points, for example the intention of protecting the minority of the opulent against the majority, sound like radical and bias language. But he is very clear about the fact that what he is referring to are THEIR words and not his. He has the knowledge to refer to these phenomena’s from the original source text and is familiar with them sufficiently to address them accurately. And for me, that was eye opening. He would refer to these various works verbatim and I think that’s what takes it out of the realm of bias and into the realm of analysis.
Jared: In the editing process, we were trying to take this wealth of information from Professor Chomsky and make as clear and accessible for people as possible. At the end of the day, we wanted these 10 core ideas to be what rung true for 75 minutes. Honestly, there was so much that we wanted to talk about but couldn’t however it is still chockfull with information and incredibly dense as we tried our best to distil and even compress it. We did want it to be accessible and we wanted the ideas to be the big takeaway.
Peter: There may have been times where we had to gear him towards removing ideologically centric language. I think that sometimes, they have been unnecessarily attached to ideologies that stand in the way of people seeing them as strong simple common sense ideas. I do believe that at the very core of everything, his ideas are very simple and straightforward.
Kelly: The wonderful thing about interviewing Chomsky is that he speaks in incredibly simple language. You don’t feel like you’re being overwhelmed. He approaches it with common currency for how people actually speak and how it can be digestible. As Peter said, we wanted it to be digestible to as broad of an audience as possible; including anyone from an expert to a high school student who has an interest in how civil society operates. Throughout the film, the way he addresses these issues isn’t with his high level vernacular, it is actually in common language.
Jared: I think that we didn’t want there to be any pre-requisites to this documentary. However at the same time, there is plenty of room for extra credit. So although there is no course you need to take prior to this film, we hope that afterward it sparks dialogue and it sparks ongoing investigation into Chomsky’s work.
We refer to it as Gateway Chomsky.
Q: Can you share any insights as to what it is like to work with Chomsky and what maybe some of your favourite moments were?
Kelly: We have been working with Chomsky for about four years and had great fortune during the first film we collaborated with him on which focused on Partisanship on American Politics. Personally, the most astounding moment over the entire process collaborating with him was when he said, “I didn’t anticipate, and I should have, but I didn’t anticipate the backlash that there would have been to the democratizing effect of the activist movement of the 60’s”. To be sitting in a room with one of the most widely regarded and intellectual individuals of our generation, who then in the last act of his working life, says, I should have seen this and I didn’t, was incredible moving. It essentially was a mea culpa of ‘this is how society works’ by him discussing that society always has a dichotomy of pressure for more democracy and freedom coming from below, and then attempts for control and domination coming from above. Just to hear him have that moment of personal clarify and say “I lived it, I was there, I was active, I was involved, I participated, I took significant material steps, and I didn’t recognize what happened, and I should have” was the most moving moment for me. He had such a deep combination of insight, vulnerability, and regret – and that to me was what makes for a transcendent story, because it is not just about principles, it is all of a sudden about being human.
Jared: Chomsky is an incredibly accessible, warm and generous person. He is not in his ivory tower and he does not make you feel inferior that you are standing the shadow of his intelligence. He was a very warm open person and it made interviewing him a real delight. We felt very blessed to have such a good experience with Professor Chomsky.
Peter: A lot of people aren’t aware of how funny he is. He has this rapier sharp wit that I don’t think comes across as strong in his writing and it rarely comes across when he is at the podium. However, when you spend time with him personally, like Jared said, he is very warm and very funny. I think that we were able to capture the warmth within Requiem for the American Dream, but you’d have to do a bit of digging to see the humour. Needless to say, I think we were all surprised by how disarmingly, non-hierarchical he is about having conversations with people about the things he is passionate about.
Kelly: To follow up from what Peter was just saying, the film underscores his focus on solidarity, and even though he is a professor at MIT, he is equally as part of the conversation in civil society as someone who lays bricks on Massachusetts Ave in Cambridge. He doesn’t approach what he does with that hierarchical sense of superiority but instead focuses on how everyone is an equal member of civil society. This was both refreshing and inspiring.
Q: While the documentary did a fantastic job of illustrating the process of how America has arrived at its current state, was there ever a conversation to broaden up the documentary to International Policy and the state of the entire world?
Kelly: When Professor Chomsky is asked about why he speaks to the phenomenon and principals of what is taking place in America, he approaches it from a) it is where he lives and the society in which he is familiar and b) the fact that there is still great transparency in the American civic process. We see what happens in congress and we can see what the outcomes are of those legislative actions. Furthermore, there is a significant general understanding in the United States of what the population wants and what popular will is. Combining those aspects together, you get the opportunity to compare and contrast those two aspects. It essentially becomes a very helpful scenario in terms of understanding the relationship between policy and popular will. In that regards, it is a great petri dish to which to analyze the relationship between popular government action, and the desire of the people. In that regard, he is also very clear that national borders do not bind these principals and they can be recognized in societies worldwide. While he does speak specifically to the US, he is also clear about the fact that these principles can be interpreted in how they can play out in different societies.
Peter: There was so many directions we could have gone with the film, however we did have to provide a focus to one concrete narrative. When you ask Chomsky a question, he takes you on this intellectual roller-coaster thrill ride that goes across four different eras, five continents and somehow is brought to the start again. He makes it very clear that this is not a phenomenon that is just happening in the United States, but it is a global phenomenon.
Q: In the answer to the first question, a few of you touched upon encouraging people to react and take action based off of the contents of the film. Throughout your research would you, or Noam Chomsky, ever advocate for an ideal course of actions for a society or individuals specifically – do you even think that one exists?
Peter: Chomsky is very careful about not being prescriptive when it comes to actions that we might choose to take in response to what is going on. I think we tried to honour that with the film however there is a thread that is very clear that activism of all kinds has had a significant impact on turning different kinds of terms around, and that it has helped governments serve the general population’s interests better over the course of history. But how that happens is really a different story and Chomsky would never say how that should happen or who should take care of it. We all believe that that work is one that we need to do with one another to figure out.
Kelly: We want to start the conversation and then the viewer would take that and mould it into their own actions. People just need to get out there, engage in dialogue, and do something. People often ask what is the answer what is the solution. As filmmakers we believe that these are starting points that people can use initiate dialogue, sort of a catalyst or spark for action. I think that organizing is important no matter what you do. When I think of these principles, which are essentially 10 principles of an unjust society, I think about what society I would like to live in. At one point Chomsky talks about a society that keeps following these principles – and that it’s a kind of society so ugly that he would not want to live in it. That makes me ask the question ‘well what kind of society do I want to live in?’ When I ask that question, which I think is the right question, then different answers start to come to the forefront for me, and that is based on my personal experience and my personal commitment to democracy. I think that whoever you are or whatever it is you believe in, democracy is this lifelong commitment. This film is a great primer for helping people figure out what that means at an individual level, and what it means for communities, the nation in which you live, and of course, the world.
Q: Any closing remarks or anything that you didn’t get a chance to say by answering the previous questions?
Kelly: For us, community and educational outreach is a really important piece of this film. Ultimately we would like to see this film in schools and partner with like minded-organizations to get the word out. We would really like to encourage people and groups in Canada to get in touch with us to help make that happen.
Peter: There is always a struggle with documentaries as a genre of filmmaking – they aren’t really date night films (and we didn’t try to make it a date night film). But what we did try to make, was a friend film. This is something that you shouldn’t see alone, but should be able to share with other people so you can have a conversation that will hopefully lead to making a difference in the world that we all live in.
It’s like the Blair Witch Project. Don’t see it alone.