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Independent America: A Q&A with Filmmaker Hanson Hosein

November 2nd, 2009 by Rebecca Harper Editor

In Independent America, husband and wife journalists Hanson Hosein and his wife, Heather Hughes, packed up their car (and their dog) and traveled the U.S. But their cross-country road trip doesn’t take place in chain motels and interstate highways. Instead, the couple searches for independent businesses — mom and pop stores, local restaurants, and family-owned inns — off of the country’s more scenic secondary highways. Along the way, they discover fiercely independent communities who are against chains and big-box retailers, an issue, it seems, that unites conservatives and liberals alike. Below, Hulu spoke to filmmaker Hosein about their journey. — Rebecca Harper (), Editor

Hulu: Can you give us a summary of the film?
Filmmaker Hanson Hosein:
The big picture is that it’s about what I call the rising insurgency against corporate chains in American small towns and cities across the Heartland. The smaller story is of a road trip my wife and I took across the United States to document that, by taking only secondary highways to see what we thought was a more authentic view of America, before the corporate chains took over, and by only doing business with independent businesses along the way.

What were some of the more surprising things you discovered while you took this trip?
I think the most surprising thing is that this issue transcends politics and the standard conservative-liberal divide we keep hearing about in the United States, which is obviously quite true with many other issues. But we were in Midwestern towns in Nebraska or Wyoming, and these are conservative areas, but they also had the same concerns; they just call it something different. In Seattle, they call it sustainability; in these places they call it conservation. They’re just as concerned about these sort of concentrations of power by large corporations, which they don’t trust as much as they trust their neighbors in terms of how they do business.

One of the reviews about this documentary points out that you aren’t actually anti-Wal-Mart, that you actually provide equal time to their company. What’s your perspective on Wal-Mart?
It’s changed over the years. Because we come from a traditional journalism background — we both used to work at NBC — we take this fair and balanced thing very seriously. It was very important for us to actually get Wal-Mart in the film. They get 800 requests a week — that’s what they told us — for interviews. They looked at our website while we were doing our trip, and they said “Well, they obviously have a point of view that’s critical of us, but they’re giving us fair opportunity to talk.” So they decided they would give us some time. They gave us free access to their stores and their advertising, and there were no conditions whatsoever. So my thought on Wal-Mart as a company is, you know, I’m concerned still about the amount of power they have in the community and some of the things they’ve done in the past, overturning what communities have decided in terms of how they want to run their neighborhoods. On the other hand, I think the fact that Wal-Mart has been very open about some of the mistakes they’ve made along the way doesn’t necessarily endear me to them, but I believe in giving them a fair opportunity to state their case. It’s been said that a book can be written about Wal-Mart and all the bad things they’ve done, and a book can be written about all the good things they’ve done. Especially in this downturn, there’s a sense that that Wal-Mart is not necessarily the bad guy as much as they had been in the past.

You mentioned that you traveled the country with your wife, Heather. What was that like for the two of you?
[Laughs] It was tough, because we had both worked in television news traditionally. We both had real jobs. This was this crazy flight of fancy we had … We tried to get PBS and Discovery Channel and these other broadcasters to support us, and nobody did. We had this incredible pressure to do this story anyway, even though we didn’t have a major supporter. We had a partner, Tom Powers from Open Door in Toronto; he’d give us some funds to do this. But this was like driving into oblivion, not knowing whether we’d have something to show and whether anybody would care about what we were doing. Doing it was a little scary, but going out with your wife and your dog, there’s some moral support there — but it’s also like you’re facing every day, like “Gee, I hope I’m not leading my family into ruin on this creative urge that may not lead to anything.” It was tough, and you have the usual squabbles that happen between husband and wife: the husband never wants to check directions, and the wife always wants to stop and ask for directions — there’s a moment of pride there. But amazingly, we got along pretty well given all the stress of what the trip was about.

How did you determine your route? Did you have certain towns you wanted to hit, or was it all a “flight of fancy?”
I used to work at NBC covering breaking news around the world, so I’m really into covering things organically and letting the story tell itself. On the other hand, I knew that we couldn’t just take a chance and just close our eyes and point at a map. So we did some research before leaving — where we thought some of the hot spots might be, and we decided that we would visit some of those along the way. But what happened –this was a few years ago, before even YouTube had launched — we decided that as we were making our trip, we would share our video and share our thoughts on our blog with the world. As we kept going, more and more people kept following us, and we’d get covered by NPR stations and local newspapers. All of a sudden, people started sending us requests and recommendations of where we should go and said [they’d] put us up for the night. Fifty percent of the trip was very serendipitous based on that interaction with the audience. I’d say that the best half of the film was actually done through improvisation from these suggestions.

You created a follow-up film where you go to New Orleans. Can you tell us about that, and why a film about New Orleans was important?
We were actually supposed to go to New Orleans on the first trip. This was in 2005, and we got a call from Wal-Mart saying “We will talk to you,” so we had to rush to get to Arkansas, where Wal-Mart has their headquarters. We were thinking, “Oh, we’ll get there sometime.” Six weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. We’d always been told that New Orleans was the classic independent American city, where they had a really strong local economy and local culture, and they didn’t like big-box stores in the city. We knew that was going to change after Katrina. The second film was kind of like a lost chapter of Independent America. It’s my attempt to capture what the city was like before, and how it was actually small businesses that came back immediately after Katrina. I mean, I heard stories of people opening up the day after the floods to help their neighborhoods, and how vital that is to a community after a disaster like that. So that’s the story of that second film. There are some concerns about how city officials have been favoring big-box stores like Home Depot with tax incentives while not giving the same incentives to small businesses. It’s very much the same themes as the first film, but it’s really focused on one community right after a major disaster.

And what are you working on these days?
Right now I’m a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. And funnily enough, all the stuff that I did for that first film — creating your own content, telling your own stories, using engaged community members to help spread the word about what you’re doing — is pretty much what I teach now. It’s like the future of digital media and communication and social media. I’m also working on a book on storytelling in the 21st century. Independent America is going to be the main theme to it, which is essentially that if you ever want to cut through all the noise — everybody can communicate these days — you have to tell a really good story and you have to find a way to connect with your community using these different platforms to have them engage with you, kind of like we did in having them tell us what the second half of the story should be. That’s basically a book on the future of storytelling.

Thanks so much for your time — good luck with these projects!

Last comment: Sep 21st 2014 3 Comments
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  • […] His 2004 documentary, “Independent America,” in which he and his wife, Heather Hughes, traveled across the country looking at mom-n-pop stores and their battle to survive in a big-box-store world, was an early example of production and distribution models that have become part of the modern filmmaker’s playbook. You can see the full doc, free, on Hulu. […]

  • […] His 2004 documentary, “Independent America,” in which he and his wife, Heather Hughes, traveled across the country looking at mom-n-pop stores and their battle to survive in a big-box-store world, was an early example of production and distribution models that have become part of the modern filmmaker’s playbook. You can see the full doc, free, on Hulu. […]