Yale affiliate's videos bring ‘ordinary citizens’ into the limelight
As they worked on a project to create their own films, the students in Professor Charles Musser’s year-long “Documentary Film Workshop” course had the opportunity to learn from someone who knows what it’s like to start from scratch, with passion but no experience: longtime Yalie Cynthia Farrar ’76.
“Nine years ago, I reinvented myself as a producer,” Farrar told the undergraduate and graduate students during a recent classroom visit. She explained how she started her own video production company, Purple States LLC, because of her sense that American democracy is “unworkable” in its current form, and she wanted to do something to change that.
“Among the things you hear said is that citizens are stupid, ill-informed, and are not voting based on their own interests; that elected officials are always gridlocked and polarized and not able to agree on how to solve any of the problems that face us; and that we are reduced to numbers as voters or as opinion poll statistics that elected officials use to figure out which way the wind is blowing,” Farrar said. Furthermore, she added, the “media is disaggregated, making it easy for each of us to occupy a kind of echo chamber, which tends to reinforce our own point of view and insulate us from other points of view.”
Purple States was a whole new kind of venture for Farrar, a civic entrepreneur whose multiple roles at Yale have included expanding the university’s partnerships with New Haven as a staff member in the Office of New Haven & State Affairs (ONHSA); co-creating and co-teaching a course — open to all local college students — about New Haven; organizing and studying citizen deliberations at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS); and teaching a class on “Politics and Digital Media,” among others.
Farrar decided she could use the medium of film to help change both the misperceptions about the populace and the realities of civic discourse. The idea for Purple States emerged from the work she did on citizen deliberation — in New Haven and around the country — at ISPS after leaving her post as director of urban academic initiatives in ONHSA in 2001, with the goal of giving “ordinary people a chance to be heard on the politics, policies, and programs that affect them,” she said. The name of her company reflects her mission to incorporate multi-partisan viewpoints in the stories Purple States produces. The citizen-driven democratic system of ancient Greece, she said, served as her inspiration.
For her first project, in 2007, Farrar invited five American citizens from different regions of the country to trail the presidential candidates in the 2008 election. The participants — also of different backgrounds and political affinities — talk about the issues that matter most to them and challenge the candidates about their views.
To distribute the videos that Purple States creates, Farrar partners with a media outlet; this first video series appeared in The New York Times as part of the newspaper’s 2008 election coverage.
“This was citizen-driven reporting on politics, bringing different perspectives into the same space,” Farrar told Musser’s students after sharing excerpts from the mini-documentary series, titled “Primaries ’08.”
Since then, Purple States has made nearly 20 productions exploring topics such as politics, education, human rights, and more. The company has diversified, and now produces stories for foundations and nonprofits as well as news organizations. For example, Farrar has told the story of a linked-learning program for high school students in California that integrates academics with real-life career pathways, and she has secured funding from foundations to produce news features on subjects such as nontraditional college students and the value of vocational and technical education programs. Still other documentaries explore a citizen-invested anti-poverty program, the logistics and economics of producing local organic food, and daily life for 192 individuals in 192 different countries (as revealed in a self-filming project with direction from Purple States).
But covering politics and policy through the eyes of ordinary citizens, she said, remains her passion. Two Purple State productions explore the successful relationships of couples that are on opposite sides of the political spectrum (“A House Divided” in 2016 and “Strange Bedfellows” in 2013).
In addition to The New York Times, the films have appeared on such major media outlets as Time, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.
Purple States’ most recent video, “Our Next President’s American Dream,” is a two-part series that explores the politics of immigration through the family histories of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. It was released just before this year’s election, and appeared on the POLITICO news site. Her next project, which she is co-producing for Frontline with Downtown Community Television in New York City, examines the re-entry experience of 12 inmates after they leave prison in Connecticut, documenting their lives from just before their release through the course of a year.
Farrar told Musser’s students that promoting citizen engagement has been her “mantra” since graduating from Yale with a major in history in 1976. After graduation, she studied ancient Greek democracy at Cambridge University in England. She is the author of the book “The Origins of Democratic Thinking” and of many articles about the implications of Athenian democracy for modern political practices.
In Musser’s classroom, Farrar showed other excerpts from Purple States films and described some of the challenges for her company. “Foundations are allergic to providing funding for films about politics,” she told students, adding that she had to use some of her own money to support her political projects. Purple States’ films have received funding from the Kellogg Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as from nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups.
Making money, Farrar said, is difficult for anyone creating films with a social point. And there are other challenges, too.
“How do you make this material both entertaining so it reaches a broad audience, but also make it challenging, a little uncomfortable? Because for me, that’s the point after all.”
In response to student questions, Farrar noted that Purples States has a tiny staff (it currently includes Farrar and Purple States co-founder John Kennedy). They partner with freelancers or other production companies as appropriate for each project. Persistence and inventiveness are key: Farrar said she’s gotten accustomed to being rejected as she personally pursues funding for projects or seeks a media outlet through which to distribute the films her company produces.
“We’ve accomplished some of our projects with great difficulty,” she told the students.
Nevertheless, the Yale faculty member said that she remains devoted to her mission to bring more citizen voices into the public realm.
“If you want to start solving the problem of democracy, you might start by actually making it a democracy,” said Farrar. She later added, “We need to find ways to put ordinary citizens in a position of making decisions and to get people to connect with people who are different from them. Showing what ordinary people are capable of has been my mission with Purple States.”