Kelly Nyks’ debut feature, “Split: A Deeper Divide,” is an overview of an American political landscape in which the center no longer holds (and indeed barely exists), with civil discourse and a functioning government increasingly undone by bitter partisanship. None of this will be news to informed viewers, and the documentary’s broad theme necessitates quick, superficial treatment of myriad underlying causes. But it’s a solid, fairly even-handed spur for discussion that will be particularly welcome in classroom settings. Limited theatrical release commences Oct. 12, with Documentary Channel airdates following in early November.
The opening features a barrage of mostly retired senatorial talking heads remarking on today’s locked-horn standoff between Republicans and Democrats. “Democracy can only work with consensus,” says one. “So it’s not working right now,” says another.
We then meet filmmaker Nyks, who commits the near-inevitable current-docu crime of unnecessarily putting himself onscreen as host. But his talks to the camera, from behind the wheel of his car on a cross-country exploration of the nation’s “rampant partisanship,” are mercifully few, even if that only underlines the irrelevance of their being included at all. (Nor does the road-trip conceit really surface enough to provide any narrative structure after it’s announced.)
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The pic is divided into chapters by six extremely broad questions Nyks has formulated, from “How are we divided?” to “What’s the answer?” Much information is crammed in between. After a brief man-on-street sampler of political stereotyping (notably, both liberals and conservatives think one another “the party of the rich”), we get a breakdown of how “red state vs. blue state” is less meaningful than differences between rural and urban populations, as well as separations drawn by morality, race and class.
A short, snarky summary of divisiveness in America’s first 200 or so years reveals that only 39 of 55 delegates agreed to sign the Constitution. Disputes over slavery, and labor vs. management demands later caused serious destabilization nationwide. Yet seldom has rapprochement between sides seemed so remote as in recent years. Nyks’ mix of opining politicos, academics and media types cite numerous causes: Among them are individuals’ disconnection from their own communities, as town hall-style forums have been replaced by media outlets that no longer inhabit the neutral center (as in the days of just three TV networks), but accentuate and reinforce extreme positions to win lucrative niche auds in a crowded, competitive field.
There’s also the degradation in genuine public debate wrought by sound bites and staying on point; yelling pundits passing as political experts; the paralysis of filibustering; exploitation of sore spots by encouraging one-issue voters (those who can be blinded to everything else by the mention of gay marriage and abortion, for instance); the politicization of churches; negative campaigning (which drives down voter turnout); the Pandora’s box of Citizens United, et al. Where once it was considered gentlemanly good form to reach for compromise across party lines, now politicians can expect censure or worse if they stray from the hard line.
Though the range and volume of ideas presented might be a tad overwhelming, the pic’s ideal audience consists of those ordinary citizens depicted as victims of this polarization — folks who may not even realize they’ve self-selected communities and media exposure until the chance of hearing an opinion different from theirs is close to nil. Refusing to play partisan itself, the docu seeks simply to remind that intolerance and disinformation flourish in such circumstances. We’re all better off when we understand our neighbors’ diversity well enough to grasp that the government needs to serve their needs, too.
The competent, well-edited package features some simple animation interludes.