"I will maintain an attitude of open-mindedness toward another person's viewpoint while still holding fast to what I know to be true and honest … I will maintain respect for those in authority and demonstrate this respect at all times … I will always remain loyal to my country and obey the laws of the land."
So goes part of the credo of author Carlos Ray Norris in the book The Secret of My Inner Strength: My Story.
Under his professional name, Chuck Norris, the writer of those civic-minded words, a polymath of truly Jeffersonian dimensions (Air Force MP, martial-arts champ, actor, prime-time's Walker: Texas Ranger), is a headlining guest at the first-ever We the People Festival, a mix of political awareness, youth-vote registration, agit-prop film and VIP pundits on the election-year stump. It will happen September 26-28 in the newly renovated Oscar Ritchie Hall at Kent State University.
Yes, the Chuck Norris will be there, and, to paraphrase ad copy for Braddock: Missing in Action 3 (or was it some other '80s action-hero spectacle?), This Time It's Personal.
Says festival representative Krista Schwandt, "The concept for the We the People Fest started a few months ago when the co-founders were in Los Angeles, speaking with film-video distribution and media-industry representatives, and discovered that almost every conversation would come back to the importance of Ohio, with the election quickly approaching. "With so many eyes on the state, the organizers decided it was time to bring people together and create an energetic forum that will help to educate while entertaining voters. They also recognized this would be the perfect opportunity to register people to vote."
Schwandt claims the We the People Fest was unaffiliated with any other such group or festival - though it shares a name with both a rabble-rousing tax-resistance/reform group and an annual social-awareness and get-out-the-vote concert in Los Angeles (happening that very same weekend, in fact) starring hip-hop and reggae artists.
The Norris factor? "We approached many people throughout the preparation of the Fest," says Schwandt. "Chuck loved the idea and wanted to be a part of it."
Masterminded by KSU alums Paul Shaia and Christina Grozik (formerly with the Cleveland-area Film Commission and a production liaison for various Hollywood location shoots here), the We the People Festival blends film (both scripted and nonfiction), guest speakers and panelists with discussion on local, national and international levels. Movies scheduled include the 2008 Kevin Costner election comedy Swing Vote, as well as Jason Zone Fisher's sound-alike docu-diary Swing State, about his father Lee Fisher's comeback campaign to be Ohio's lieutenant governor.
Other documentaries: Hacking Democracy (HBO's report on the dubious dealing of the Diebold Corporation, Ohio manufacturer of balloting machines), And The Winner Is ..., Holler Back, ... So Goes the Nation, How Ohio Pulled It Off, Split and American Blackout. This last one is, by turns, a chronicle of Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and an expose of African Americans systematically excluded from the voting process. The late Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones is prominent among the interviewees. "Some of the films' topics include: why more women aren't involved in politics; why the parties are so divided; why more people do not vote; how one town decided to change the election process," says Schwandt.
One might recall, though, the summer and fall of 2004. Michael Moore's cheeky docu-editorial Fahrenheit 9/11 did phenomenal box office nationwide, and it was merely one among many that attacked (Bush's Brain, Unconstitutional, Outfoxed, Bush Family Values) the incumbent from every angle. Here in Flyover Land, stars - from Robert Redford to Hilary Swank to Bruce Springsteen - walked among us, registering new voters and speaking as one, the royalty of American stage and screen demanding that the citizens of Ohio do their part to throw the architects of Homeland Security and the Iraq War out of the White House.
Result: The Republicans won anyway, four more years. And we didn't even get to see Alec Baldwin and Barbra Streisand make good on promises to go away. Given this track record, does the We the People Fest constitute pretty much another movie-industry endorsement for the Democratic ticket, this time Obama-Biden?
No, claims Schwandt: "We have invited all sides to come to the table. We are providing a venue for everyone to get involved as much as they like. It is a non-partisan event. It's important to present all of the information and let people decide for themselves."
Still, don't try to sell a McCain "Country First" lawn sign to Laura Paglin. The Cleveland-based filmmaker (Nightowls of Coventry) will host a screening of her own Sundance-entry short No Umbrella: Election Day in the City, in which the late Fannie Lewis confronts voting irregularities in her Cleveland wards in November 2004.
"One might conclude … this election is boiling down to an American Idol sort of contest," says Paglin. "I find it stunning that anyone - women in particular - would suddenly change their vote from Obama to McCain simply on the basis of Sarah Palin's personality! The public deserves what it gets - which is how George Bush got elected twice.
"As for the 2004 [ballot], I don't think the results had anything to do with a Hollywood backlash, but had everything to do with the public's gullibility - believing, for example, that a war in Iraq would prevent another 9/11 and that the two are somehow connected."
When it comes to the ideal of diversity of opinion represented at Kent under one, big happy tent at We the People weekend, Paglin serves a bit of a reality check: "I have yet to meet a Republican filmmaker."
A pass to the entire We the People Fest is $50. Some screenings and events are free; other screenings-panel discussions run $7 general admission, $5 for students. Chuck Norris' appearance in Cartwright Hall is at 3 p.m. Sunday, September 28, and costs $10, $8 for students. For a complete lineup and information, go to wethepeoplefest.com.
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