American Civic Life

SXSW: Can Film Be a Force for Change in Polarizing Times?

(LaylaBird/Getty Images)

(LaylaBird/Getty Images)

Fifty years ago today, Cindy Campbell’s back to school party spilled outside of the common rec room area of her parents’ apartment at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the South Bronx. The record selection her younger brother Clive began playing, initially, did not move the crowd, until he began playing more soul-laced jams like James Brown and Parliament Funkadelic. He noticed the dance floor became especially animated during the extended bridge and instrumental section of the records, a part that became known as the break.  

Clive Campbell began experimenting with extending this part of the record, catering to the enlivened dancers who came to be known as Break Boys and Break Girls, BBoys and BGirls, or Break Dancers. Clive adopted the name Kool Herc, because of his size and stature, and Hip Hop, a diasporic cultural form, continued to find its way into youth cultural practice in the boroughs of New York—and eventually the planet—becoming a bridging tool to bring generations of young people around the globe together in physical proximity and sonic space.   

Hip Hop welcomes all to the creative center, a physical and metaphorical space called “the cipher.” The cipher is a circle and radically democratic space where everyone can express themselves while listening to the contributions of those distinctly different. It is an exercise in artistic and civic maturation.   

Interfaith America employs a similar approach to the civic space. We believe, like hip hop’s cipher, that the more voices in the choir, the fresher and more enlivened the space can be. This is part of the reason Interfaith America is exploring the power of implementing Arts and Culture into our work across the organization, as well as building out platforms in multimedia spaces in which to document and share the stories of inspiring emerging Interfaith Leaders from around the country.   

For the last year, a team of us at IA have been traveling across the country to create mini-documentary films telling the story of community and faith leaders working to make the civic space more just, inclusive, and understanding. These leaders are mostly non-clerical and driven by their faith commitments and commitments to democracy.   

We intend to create more spaces that highlight the miracles of daily democratic cooperation in order, in part, to counter the narrative of our country’s divisiveness. This does not mean we do not have a lot of work to do. We indeed do. Arts and culture create moments and experiences that can call into the civic space more than our rhetoric and intellect. Arts and culture, when done well, can work at stirring our foundation and connecting us to body and breath and breaking us out of our traditional ways of thinking and, hopefully, opening us up to an experience of something transcendent.  

We have an opportunity at the incredible arts, culture, and music festival South by Southwest (SXSW) to highlight some films we have been making and the work of the cinematographer who has been creating work for IA all year long, Alex Myung. We are putting a panel together featuring Alex and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Joshua Seftel, moderated by our own Jenan Mohajir.

Please take a moment and vote for this panel so we may bring the power of Interfaith America’s brand of storytelling to the festival and welcome more voices into our cipher, our potluck, our country, which we are building together.