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HAYES AND PIWOWAR: We’re from opposite ends of the political spectrum, and we made a film together about politics

“Common Grounds?” — a student-produced documentary about political discourse at the University — premiers on Nov. 11

Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to develop shared goals.
Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to develop shared goals.

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It’s no shocker for us to say that Americans today are divided. In fact, it’s becoming a tired phrase that’s losing its luster. What do we actually mean when we say Americans are divided? It’s not just that we disagree — news flash, we’ve always been a partisan country. What’s troubling now is that Americans are finding it increasingly difficult to develop shared goals. And when we have no shared goals, we find it really hard to live in a country together, let alone sit in a room with each other and talk politics.

It’s this exact dilemma that led us and three other University students to create “Common Grounds?” —  a documentary that explores questions of free speech, historical reckoning and civility. The film grew out of our Center for Politics internship this spring, from discussions around hyper-polarization and what could be done about it. We wondered if students would be willing, or even excited, to share their opinions on this topic.

As filmmakers, we reached out to friends, acquaintances and strangers from across the political spectrum to get their opinions on a range of political issues and the climate those issues have created, both on Grounds and across the nation. We interviewed students individually, and then we brought six of them into a room to have a dialogue. At the end of the discussion, we challenged our participants to work together to paint a shared message on Beta Bridge.

We found the dialogue and the subsequent bridge painting to be thought-provoking and genuine. Our wonderful participants brought their honest opinions to the table, and they didn’t compromise on their fundamental beliefs. They reminded us that we’d be underestimating the issue if we thought we could solve all of our country’s — or even our University’s — problems with six students talking for an hour. But, as you’ll see in the film, they also gave us hope for how we can move forward.

What’s more is that, outside of the interactions you’ll see on screen, creating the film itself was a project in uniting divisions. The team of five students who created the film — all interns at the U.Va. Center for Politics this spring — could not have been more politically diverse. We were comprised of two liberals/progressives, two conservatives and an international student from Lebanon who self-described as a centrist.

The two of us writing this article are representative of that difference. One of us, Piwowar, is conservative and the other, Hayes, is progressive. One of us has been to the March for Life, while the other has volunteered for Planned Parenthood. One of us campaigned for Nick Freitas and the other for Cameron Webb. Simply put, we both have a lot of opinions — and they aren’t often in agreement.

Yes, we challenged other students to go on camera and discuss politics, but we also challenged ourselves to work in tandem and create a cohesive, objective documentary about it. As an ideologically diverse group, we faced the very challenge that we handed to the subjects of our film — can we sit in a room together, diagnose the political challenges our country faces and, hardest of all, execute a shared project?

“Common Grounds?” is proof that the answer is yes. Of course, it wasn’t without its challenges. Even with a shared goal of creating a nonpartisan documentary, conflict was inevitable. We had our fair share of tongue-biting, the occasional groan and even some bickering. There were times when we faced gridlock over how to present an issue or ask a question. Ironically, however, the constant tension between right and left created the perfect environment for developing a film that was truly reflective of the interviews we conducted. 

We don’t purport to have fixed any problems or really changed much at the University, but we hope that our small project might model what is possible. And at the very least, we met people we’d otherwise never interact with and we are better for it. We shared inside jokes, became exhausted by the difficulties of making a film and suffered through a global pandemic together. During a semester of strictly online Zoom classes, this internship was one of the only opportunities we had to get to know our classmates. What we thought would be a boring semester with little interaction turned out to be exactly the opposite — and those we interacted with the most were our political opposites, not those in our own bubble.

In creating the documentary, we far exceeded the required internship hours and worked beyond the spring semester into the summer and fall. We proved to ourselves that this was never about the internship, or the grade, but about something that we believed was fundamentally important to our divided University, and our divided nation.

“Common Grounds?” premieres Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. in the Rotunda Dome Room. We hope you’ll come with an open mind, and that you’ll take something away from it.

Molly Hayes is a third year in the Batten School and Sean Piwowar is a fourth year in the College. They were both student interns at the U.Va. Center for Politics this past semester where they produced the documentary “Common Grounds?” Hayes and Piwowar can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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