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Nov. 30, 2006 • Volume 15 Number 7

"I like asking people questions...I like to find out for myself what they believe." - Matthew Porter. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Listening to 'American Voices'

Student's documentary is a paean to tradition of American protest

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

The way Matthew Porter '09 sees it, there's a very thin line separating politics, theater and journalism.

That's why earlier this year the Lawrence native undertook a project that combined all these elements: "American Voices," a nearly one-hour documentary about the act, and art, of protest in the United States.

Porter spent almost a month last summer in Washington, DC, filming and interviewing activists, including those who were rallying against the war in Iraq and others staging counter-protests against the anti-war demonstrators. He then spent another month or so editing the 22 hours of footage he accumulated, and adding some final touches, including an historical perspective on protest in America.

"American Voices" focuses less on analyzing the sociopolitical views of the various activists than on examining how they stage their protests, and how successfully they appear to get their message across to the public. While Porter provides some voice-over narration, he mainly points the camera at the demonstrators and lets them tell their messages.

"'American Voices' is an ambitious undertaking," said Fine Arts Department chairman Prof. John Michalczyk, who offered advice and some technical assistance to Porter. "I find it covers a very significant amount of ground in presenting the protest side of American democracy at its best, and now at its most vocal because of the Iraq conflict. I find it to be quite balanced in letting extremes and moderates voice their perspective."

For Porter, "American Voices" represents, both thematically and stylistically, the intersection of his two majors, theater and political science. "Theater teaches you to speak, to act, to be truthful in your emotions, to be persuasive. Politics requires you to research your argument, to have the facts arranged and presented in such a way that you can make your case.

"So I see theater as training for the body and political science as training for the mind, and the challenge is in integrating them," says Porter.

One way in which Porter merges these two interests is in the journalistic realm. While a student at Boston College High School, he helped start a newspaper for area teens and young adults produced through the Youth Opportunity Boston program. As a BC freshman, he did a report on tensions between Harvard University and Brighton.

"Print journalism is great, but I find that I enjoy the 'theater' aspect of broadcast journalism," Porter says. "Most of all, I like asking people questions. I don't like to read summaries of what people's views and beliefs are - I like to find out for myself what they believe."

With the help of Assoc. Prof. Jennie Purnell (Political Science), who nominated him for an Advanced Study Grant, Porter devised a documentary film project exploring "the theater of politics." The best venue for that, he realized, was in Washington, DC, where political activity is a daily occurrence.

Porter didn't go to Washington with the idea of focusing on war-oriented demonstrations and protests, but he soon found these to be the most ubiquitous, and best suited for a study in contrasting styles and philosophies. Although he wanted to capture as much of an ideological spectrum as possible - and he notes that the individuals and groups in the film may share some, but not identical, sociopolitical goals and beliefs - Porter says he found most activists present tended to have an unfavorable view of the war and the Bush Administration.

But Porter was able to document a stand-off of sorts between Code Pink, a group keeping vigil outside Walter Reed Medical Center, and counter-demonstrators calling themselves Free Republicans or "Freepers," who urge support for the war effort. Porter interviews members of both groups and examines some points of contention between the two. Freepers, for example, accuse Code Pink of raising money to support terrorism in Iraq - a claim Porter explains is untrue - and are later shown photographing Code Pink in what the latter's members see as an attempted provocation.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this sequence is hearing members of Code Pink and the Free Republicans define their respective missions, on their own terms and in relation to the other group. As Porter suggests, this self-analysis is at the very heart of social and political protest.

Porter also shows how activists use dramatic imagery - such as dressing in an orange jumpsuit and black hood to evoke the controversy over US treatment of prisoners of war - and satire in their protests: Some activists are shown wearing giant masks bearing the likenesses of members of the Bush Administration and holding sardonic signs, while another is dressed up as "Death" (his sign proclaims "W. Bush has been very very good to me").

One of the simpler and more eloquent uses of imagery Porter finds is the display outside the Capitol Building of 48 pairs of combat boots, each representing a soldier who has died in Iraq. Porter is clearly impressed by the group staging the protest, Military Families Speak Out, because of their avoidance of political attacks and accusations, and emphasis on concern for the troops' health and well-being. His analysis is underlined by interviews with group members, who proclaim the need for civil discourse about the war on all sides.

"As long as we think we're going down different paths," says the mother of a soldier in Iraq, "we risk growing farther and farther apart."

Porter also asks passers-by for their reactions to activists' tactics. Many are at least sympathetic, some rather critical - in opposition to the views being expressed - and others are clearly amused: "Costumes that scare small children is probably not the route [to go]," chuckles a Florida tourist over the Bush and Death characters.

The reaction to "American Voices" has been generally positive, says Porter, who has screened the film on campus and plans to enter it in the University's Baldwin Awards competition for outstanding student films. Although one viewer argued with Porter about some of the content, "he said, 'I do agree that you tried to present different views,'" according to Porter.

"What I try to get across as much as possible is you are seeing this 'through my eyes.' I'm not trying to be completely objective, but at the same time I'm not trying to editorialize. This is what I saw, what I heard, and you can judge for yourself."

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