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Tackling Justice In Five Minutes

A new series from Sundance is tackling justice in five-minute films.

CREDIT: Pexels.

Something strange is happening in America. It is at once the age of fear and of embrace, of defiant political incorrectness and of unapologetic wokeness, of an extreme shift to the right and of a counter-shift to the left. The haves have got more than ever, the have-nots ever less. The Dream so instilled in every American child creeps further out of reach, as rising youth unemployment and poverty and debt threaten our ways of life. Young people are yelling, but our cries ring inaudibly beneath the partisan din. In this climate, it can be difficult to discern issue from non-issue, and more difficult still to take an honest pulse of an anxious electorate.

But even in the face of widespread skepticism around our democratic processes, Americans have roundly united behind the concept of justice as a measure of nonpartisan common ground. And this is no small feat, especially in an issue market populated more and more by transient social media trends (see the 2014 Ebola panic, or the Kony 2012 campaign).

But what is justice, and who is it for? What does justice mean in America today, and especially for young people—who are disproportionately impacted by the system, and who are often charged with leading the march toward it—whatever it may be? What is certain is that young people have invested a great deal of thought, if not social capital, in the concept of justice, and expect a great deal more.

“Take 5: Justice in America,” a new documentary series from AMC Networks’ SundanceNow Doc Club seeks to inform these questions in an innovative way. Launched today, the inaugural series presents a quintet of documentary films exploring distinctly modern iterations of justice: bail reform, voting rights, gun control, the working poor, and gentrification. The kicker: each film is only five-minutes long – perhaps a nod to the exploding market for streaming video, perhaps one to Millennial media habits.

We’ve all seen these buzzwords inspire indignation on our social media timelines before, so why not depart from the business-as-usual conventions of documentary filmmaking, produce five short-form spots on salient social issues, and see how it goes? This being the age of social media, where police abuses of power and other failures in the justice system have viral potential, it’s no surprise how the five-minute model might enjoy similar shareability.

“This is the golden age of documentary filmmaking,” said Sheldon Candis, director of “Who Will Survive America,” the film in the series that explores America’s unique attachment to firearms. “Activism in this society has really waned in the digital age. As documentary filmmakers, our main job is to create a piece of art that creates a conversation, which then starts legislation, and so on. We’re trying to hold a mirror up to society to show it as it really is.”

But critical to holding up that mirror is being acutely aware of who, exactly, is being reflected. In questions of civil or criminal justice, it is too often those who have been denied, at the cultural level, any reflections of themselves who get caught up in the system and lose faith in the Dream.

Does the 18-year-old on the South Side of Chicago who has lost friends and family to gun violence still believe in that Dream? And what about the 16-year-old New Yorker not allowed to vote but permitted to be tried as an adult in court? The Millennial SNAP recipient and mother of three, does she believe she can still make it? And for the college-aged voters in Wisconsin or North Carolina who were turned away at the polls, where do they stake their claim in the Dream if they can’t even register their constitutionally-granted voice? It’s no wonder nearly half (48 percent) of all Millennials believe the American Dream is dead.

For young people, often described in tired platitudes of apathy and entitlement, “Take 5: Justice in America” just might be the redress for a stigma of slacktivism that has clung to a generation too diverse to be singularly defined or stereotyped. Because despite being the most diverse, most connected generation in American history, Millennials are also the least likely to vote.

Feeling cheated, young people see justice in fairness: we just want a fair, transparent system. But “Take 5” could be the inflection point in the trend, because these are issues that directly impact young people, whether we know it or not.

“There’s a huge gap of knowledge between people who engage with the criminal justice system, and people who don’t,” said Razan Ghalayini, a director and producer whose film, “Limbo,” dissects America’s deeply flawed money bail system. “Nobody is going to get riled up about bail reform until they know what bail reform is…The system is seen as a problem for bad people, not for all people.”

In bringing a seemingly distant issue like bail reform into the societal nomenclature through film, the issue is normalized, erasing any notions of anonymity or distance for viewers who have, for reasons of privilege or luck or circumstance, never before had to engage with the system. This, despite the fact that nearly one-third of young people will have been arrested before the age of 23.

But for issues less abstract, the “Take 5” series might serve not just as a tool of entertainment and education, but of direct action. In their film, “A Hug from Paul Ryan,” directors Sheena M. Joyce and Don Argott strip politics of all pretense and explore a very human interaction between then-Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and Tianna Gaines-Turner, the film’s subject. Tianna, a working mother of three, relayed the impact of cutting social programs to her family and others like them in front of the committee, and asked for a hug—not a handshake—at its close. The film goes on to explore the perils of America’s working poor: an oft-overlooked underclass whose voices are becoming increasingly silenced by a depressive and selective job market, along with expansive budget cuts to America’s once-heralded social safety net.

“Everyone should care about the working poor, because everyone knows someone who is struggling financially, and many of us are one paycheck away from being in the same position as people like Tianna [the subject of the film, whose hug from Paul Ryan was captured in a photo, but whose calls for support went unheeded in Ryan’s budget].  We are not doing enough as a country to deal with this issue, and [we need] to support our friends and neighbors who deserve some fairness,” Joyce wrote me.

Indeed, profound demographic shifts in the past decade have ushered equally rapid shifts in attitudes on social issues and the democratic process. Nearly half of Millennials believe our police and court systems to be unjust; nearly half do not believe in the judicial system’s ability to interpret the law without bias. Millennials also grew up in the waning days of the War on Drugs, experienced the dark days of mass incarceration, understand the toll of rampant gun violence on the collective American psyche, reject the restrictions inhibiting their right to vote, and point to the widening wealth gap as a threat to disenfranchise entire sub-populations of Americans.

The great democratizer, social media has removed barriers to information that in previous generations might have barred curious citizens from self-educating on such issues. But knowledge is about much more than mere information-gathering. And film, perhaps, is the ideal vehicle to host that conversion of information, to knowledge, to power, so goes the cliché. As sheer population numbers dictate, Millennials have plenty stored that away in their reserves, now comprising the largest share of the electorate. The voting gap is telling, but not everything.

“It’s clear that young people are encountering a country that’s in real crisis, even though we don’t always see that crisis on the surface,” said Rachel Lears, a documentary filmmaker and director of “The New Fight for Voting Rights,” the film tackling a sweeping national movement of restrictive voting rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of key provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Lears continued, “We have staggering levels of income inequality that are only increasing, a broken criminal justice system at its breaking point, and now there are these social movements taking off that are changing the landscape of what political participation means in this country, beyond general election voting.”

In this digital age, we’ve largely awakened to these facts, become aware of their impact on not just the direction of a single generation, but of an entire country in need of fundamental reform. But even more, to bring these issues to life in film is to ascribe a human face to an abstract concept. It’s up to the viewer to decide what to do next.

“Films like these can be the spark that invite further public participation,” Lears said. “Nobody will claim that a five-minute film can be a movement, but it can certainly be a vital part of a movement. A film can get people to that next level, and that’s what we’re hoping to do: engage people where they are, capture their heart and their mind, and then connect them with further resources…This is about more than just voting, per se. This is about who has a voice in our democracy.”

And in just five minutes, “Take 5: Justice in America” seeks to make accessible—and shareable—the very human, very American stories of injustice that have grown palpable in their penchant to draw digital sympathies, but not quite comprehensive action. It’s an experiment in entertainment, sure, but also one of engagement, of holding up a mirror to the systemic discrimination pervading our democracy.

So where does this leave us? Six months from the most consequential presidential election in recent history, with the power of numbers, the luxury of open information, and searing moral questions about what, fundamentally, we value as a nation. As we’ve come to know, “every bold advancement of freedom in America is always met with an equally bold backlash.”

But justice, as a concept, seems to have transcended the ephemeral issues of yore, drawing support from powerful voices in every corner of America, and from a Millennial generation looking anxiously ahead for something new. The seeds have been sewn in these five-minute films, but history affirms that seeds alone cannot build sustainable change.

“We’re just beginning to question the American Dream,” Candis said. “We’ve finally seen behind the curtain. So now, you really have to look at present-day America and ask yourself, ‘how am I going to survive this landscape?’”

Check out “Take 5: Justice in America” here — and make your voice heard by registering to vote.

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Kyle Epstein is the Press Associate for Generation Progress.

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