Stories for Social Change in “Flight Behavior” & “The Line”

In early October, on the eve of the first Presidential debate, the social justice-focused Sojourners presented a documentary it had produced about poverty in America. The Line—the title a nod to both the statistical marker of “official” poverty, as well as the invisible fences between the “haves” and “have nots”—profiled four Americans who help to comprise the approximately 46 million people who live below the poverty line. The producer, Linda Midgett, is a friend of mine, and a few weeks ago we talked about the project, as well as the way that Sojourners hoped to present it: The Line first aired in Washington, D.C., with a panel discussion following the screening. From there, Sojourners aimed to equip individuals, churches, and organizations to host their own screenings and use the documentary as a springboard to facilitate discussions. Much like the marketing of “Race to Nowhere,” Sojourners hoped to provide information to propel a conversation forward.

The documentary had an estimated audience of 125,000 online viewers in October alone. It was created not necessarily to get a particular candidate or party elected, but simply to put American poverty into people’s psyches and range of visions. However viewers decided to vote was up to them. But the people behind The Line would like to see this issue become one that is talked about with greater frequency. In its simplest form, the film is a transfer of information, from sources to viewers.

And what do we do when information—facts, stories, evidence, and data—is put in our lap? More importantly, where does this information come from? One can argue that solitary “information” doesn’t pose a benefit unless it’s applied toward an outcome. Otherwise, facts and figures and even anecdotes sit in the belly of our being, only exhumed in Alex Trebek fashion at dinner parties or job interviews. While it’s not a surprise that every person filters even the most concrete of fact through her own schema, we must acknowledge that these schemas are also informed by the communities where an individual spends the majority of her time. In fact, Marshall McLuhan, grandfather of modern media theory, wrote, 40 years ago:

Our Western values, built on the written word, have already been considerably affected by the electronic media of telephone, radio, and TV. Perhaps that is the reason why many highly literate people in our time find it difficult to examine this question without getting into a moral panic.

Issues often become framed as “right” or “wrong” due to community input. However, despite the undercurrent of “liberalism” at Sojourners, one has to assume that some viewers would walk away from watching The Line steadfast Republicans while others cling to their Democrat ideals (not to mention all the “undecideds” and third-party supporters). The point of the film is not specifically to help elect a particular candidate, but instead is two-fold: It presents straight-up information, and it gives a voice to those whose desires, struggles and needs are often voiced through well-intentioned, but one-step-removed, third-party organizations and agencies. The goal of The Line is simply to make people and candidates aware. (Pre-election, a “tell your candidate about this issue” button appeared on the project’s website.) “We were conscious of not employing narration,” explained Linda. “I don’t want to add to their story. I just want to tell it well.”

And when we have people’s stories—their information—what do we do with it?

“Information is all we have,” writes Barbara Kingsolver in her new novel, Flight Behavior. Following small-town Tennessean Dellarobia Turnbow and her discovery of a multitude of migrating monarch butterflies that have roosted in the trees on her husband’s family’s land, Flight Behavior plays with the intersection of media and one’s reality and how to decipher the information provided by both. As she did with her previous novels, most notably in 2000’s Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver uses environmental issues to point out the conflicts between the unintended consequences of technological advancement and the immediate needs of those who rely on jobs or technologies that can also be called damaging. Protagonist Dellarobia, a young mother wondering how she never managed to escape small-town Feathertown, finds herself somehow straddling the two camps, as her world begins to open up and new knowledge is presented before her. Despite her unhappiness in her marriage to Cub, she tries to keep him happy and live the life she thinks she’s destined to: “She took this vow as regularly as she breathed, and reliably it was punctured by some needling idea that she was cut out for something more.” In typical Kingsolver fashion, a sophisticated and educated character (in this case, an entomologist named Dr. Ovid Byron) bombards a small town, and his scientific career as well as his passion for understanding—and slowing down—climate change, mark him as a know-it-all outsider.

The people of Feathertown live in a ubiquitous bubble: a place where everyone knows everyone else’s business and no one seems to leave, except perhaps to Cleary, a somewhat larger town 15 miles away. In a community where the high school football coach also teaches math, and outsiders—particularly from other parts of the country—are viewed as suspicious interlopers, Dr. Byron’s presence ripples through the community. He punctures the bubble and allows confusing—and therefore unwanted—information and attention to seep in.

How easy, therefore, it is for the reader to assume that it is Feathertown—and Dellarobia—alone that should be stretched out of a bubble. For the people of Feathertown, a ruptured bubble means facing politics they don’t agree with, engaging with people from different ethnic backgrounds, and interpreting the unspoken code of people who are more “educated.” Raised in rural Kentucky, Kingsolver knows better than to dumb down an entire community whose gifts, although perhaps not a result of an expensive university, are just as worthy. The author gives Dr. Byron and others like him their own fair share of bubble-worthy moments, such as when Dellarobia deftly repairs a zipper on a researcher’s name-brand jacket that would have been otherwise thrown out. Instead, the book’s ire is directed toward mass media—particularly television and the internet—and the farcical way Dellarobia’s discovery of the butterflies is twisted and convoluted using sly editing and the manipulative tools of the internet.

Kingsolver doesn’t necessarily condemn bubbles—these communities that we are often born into and have the power to inform its members about anything and sometimes everything. But do we have a obligation to seek information from atypical sources, such as directly from people themselves? When Dellarobia begins to understand that she belongs to a community—Southern, poor, and rural—that is often poked fun of in the media, she also resigns herself to the fact that changing people’s opinions is difficult. The comedians who laugh at people like her “would never come see what Tennessee was like, any more than she would get a degree in science and figure out the climate things Dr. Byron described. Nobody truly decided for themselves. There was too much information. What they actually did was scope around, decide who was looking out for their clan, and sign on for the memos on a wide array of topics.” Dellarobia’s understanding of how humans filter information heightens when she meets her son Preston’s classmate and her family. Josefina and her parents have migrated to Feathertown from Michoacán, Mexico, which is where the monarch butterflies originate from. Their arrival in Feathertown follows a devastating flood that destroys their entire town. Dellarobia soon recognizes that “You could feel more decent watching [television news] when the victims weren’t sitting on your sofa.”

So in order to invoke change—in whatever form—is it more important for an entire community bubble to transform or break, or should we perhaps just be paying attention to our individual bubbles? Who do we let in? For all of our emphasis on the good qualities that come along with community, maybe it’s not such a bad idea to consider how an individual’s acquisition of information—in other words, puncturing one’s own bubble—might eventually benefit an entire community. In Flight Behavior, as far as the reader knows, an entire community doesn’t transform. Rather, Dellarobia allows her own bubble to be infiltrated by other’s stories and being open to the possibility that other perspectives can co-exist with hers.

And what about real-life issues that people attempt to tackle outside the pages of a novel? Although The Line profiles—using their own words—four Americans living in poverty, the film also includes one more subject: Rev. Julian DeShazier (or J.Kwest, as he’s known when he raps). Part of his ministry is working with youths who have dropped out of high school and “adding creativity to their lives—creativity and dignity,” as well as the requisite practical help in obtaining a GED and other skills. He explains how he addresses the people he ministers to: “You have a story to tell. You’ve seen something. And what I want to do is help you tell that story. We want to help you tell that story because once you can tell that story, you can own your life. You own your identity.”

There are a lot of big issues in this world. How do we hope to address them all? Perhaps we can start by listening to a story from an actual person.

The Curator is an assemblage of original and found essays, poetry, reviews, quotations, image galleries, video, and other media in a continuing commitment to wrestle with all that is in culture, and to look toward all that ought to be in hope.