"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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."