HBO’s ‘Our Towns’ Documentary Review by TV Critics from Small Towns


The feature-length document avoids small-town stereotypes regularly purported on TV, however dodges crucial problems tied to the sustainability of those little communities.

The video above used to be produced through IndieWire’s Inventive Manufacturer Leonardo Adrian Garcia. The assessment under pertains to HBO’s documentary movie “Our Towns,” a portrait of The united states’s small towns and cities that chronicles the upward push of civic and financial reinvention throughout six selected communities. In line with the e book “Our Cities: A 100,000-Mile Adventure Into the Middle of The united states” through James and Deborah Fallows, the documentary is to be had now from HBO.

Ben Travers, TV Critic: Libby, small cities grasp a pricey position in my center, as I do know they do yours. We’re each from cities off the crushed trail (although I’m technically from a village, as my tiny rural house has not up to 1000 voters). We’ve each since moved to “the massive town” (Los Angeles, although quite a few different densely populated locales are compatible the word). And we each are vexed every time any individual makes a remark about small city existence with out first pointing out the place they’re from and, if their city proves unfamiliar (because it must), offering the inhabitants.

Input “Our Cities.” HBO’s documentary chronicles six small towns and cities throughout The united states, taking specific pastime in how every fosters a thriving neighborhood amid difficult instances. Whether or not it’s thru innovation, initiative, collaboration, or a bit little bit of all 3, go back and forth reporters James and Deborah Fallows, along side filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan (a College of Iowa alumnus, like yours in point of fact), fly their little four-person airplane into city and pass in search of what assists in keeping every position at the map.

I’ll admit, once James Fallows stated he got here from San Bernadino, CA, the primary selected town, my hackles had been up. Now not most effective is its inhabitants within the triple digits, however the town’s proximity to Los Angeles made it somewhat well known in comparison to the 1,000-plus submissions in the beginning won for this challenge. (It all started as a blogpost for The Atlantic.) How is San Bernadino an underrepresented city? How is a city identified through each actor in Hollywood similar to “flyover nation,” as Fallows relates by the use of voiceover? How is it “small”?

I’m nonetheless no longer certain “Our Cities” justifies San Bernadino’s inclusion, however because the 97-minute function moved on, I discovered it no less than makes a resounding case to appreciate and recognize puts which might be so regularly unnoticed through primary media — and so regularly misrepresented on TV — with out conflating all small cities into the idyllic or uninformed stereotypes so regularly noticed. However I’m getting forward of items: What concerning the documentary truly stood out to you?

Libby Hill, TV Awards Editor: Ben, I’ll be truthful with you. As soon as the documentary opened with San Bernardino/Riverside/Redlands, CA — another way referred to as the 13th biggest metropolitan house in the US — it misplaced me. I perceive what Fallows is trying to mention along with his argument lumping in combination puts generally lost sight of through the mainstream media, nevertheless it truthfully turns out like false equivalence. When he says he is going to South Dakota and understands how locals really feel lost sight of or misunderstood through the remainder of the rustic, I will say, moderately expectantly, that he does no longer.

And I say that with all of the self assurance of somebody who has lived in each Riverside and (inside 30 miles of) Sioux Falls, SD.

That is, in all probability, the crux of what didn’t paintings for me about “Our Cities.” There’s no actual unifying thesis past, “Listed here are some puts we don’t truly discuss that experience in large part the similar issues as all over the place else within the nation.” In fact, that’s no longer even the thesis as a result of when the documentary makes an attempt to handle problems with huge import, like institutional racism, it’s wildly inconsistent with how a lot it desires to interact.

As an example, the movie used to be very inquisitive about exploring sure immigrant studies because it associated with staff who had not too long ago relocated to Sioux Falls for paintings after which keep to construct a greater existence for his or her households; particularly, how a South Dakota banking growth had spurred many process alternatives for other people simply beginning out. However the ones beaucoup banking dollars come at a value. The explanation that Wells Fargo and Citibank moved their operations to the state within the early 1980s is as a result of South Dakota rewrote its usury rules, putting off caps on rates of interest and costs, making the Rushmore State a secure haven for banks who sought after to slap 26 % rates of interest on bank cards regularly aimed toward folks the least prone to have the method to regulate one of these boggling charge.

And the banking business isn’t the one position within the state relying closely on immigrant laborers. Audience may have heard of the Smithfield meat packing plant sooner than seeing it within the document, when it was a COVID-19 hotspot remaining April, in the end resulting in the manufacturing unit being closed for almost a month. When all used to be stated and carried out, 1,300 staff gotten smaller the virus, with 4 death from it.

However “Our Cities” had so much much less pastime in exploring the previous immigrant revel in versus the latter and I’m questioning how a lot that has to do with the filmmakers said function of heading off nationwide politics when it got here to creating the movie. Ben, am I manner off base or is trying to forget about the underlying politics of a spot smack of privilege?

HBO Our Towns documentary South Dakota

A mom and kid in South Dakota, from HBO’s “Our Cities” documentary

Courtesy of HBO

Ben: I don’t assume you’re off-base in any respect. When reviewing any challenge that feels inaccurate, whether or not it’s in a selected plot level or the overall conception, I regularly get stuck within the lure of reviewing what I sought after the challenge to be somewhat than what the challenge in fact is — and there’s definitely a chance of that going down to me right here, with a subject matter I think strongly about. However the filmmakers point out that they didn’t wish to ask locals about nationwide politics, even if the ones subjects are already framing many problems going through those cities, whether or not the document desires to recognize them or no longer.

In a Q&A screened on the (digital) premiere, the “Our Cities” group went a little bit additional in outlining their thesis. James Fallows stated their underlying function used to be truly “seeking to put across how a lot there may be there,” or just reminding people who The united states exists past its city skylines. That’s a fantastic purpose and speaks to how the movie avoids gross generalizations of “small cities” (a los angeles the hickish “Schitt’s Creek” or overly idyllic “Gilmore Ladies”). However Steven Ascher stated one thing extra for your considerations and in the end extra to what’s lacking on this fetching however forgettable documentary.

“We didn’t got down to make a good movie. Our function used to be to seize actual darkness and actual efforts to counteract that darkness,” he stated. “We concept it used to be truly necessary to turn you what’s flawed and display you the way other people had been running on this stuff.”

In that function, I believe they in large part failed. I keep in mind Fallows’ narration citing that South Dakota banking growth and pondering, “Right here we pass — that is the place it will get darker.” However they brush proper through it. “By way of transferring their headquarters to South Dakota, banks may just rate shoppers a lot upper rates of interest, which supposed large income from individuals who couldn’t repay their bank cards each month,” Fallows says within the document. But it surely’s transparent from the quick pivot to a brand new subject that we’re most effective supposed to concentrate on how jobs had been created. The massive income topic greater than the folks suffering to repay unreasonable money owed — money owed that will be unlawful if amassed in different states, at different instances — and that’s only one example by which “Our Cities” choices and chooses which problems to handle with a purpose to paint an interesting portrait of American ingenuity.

To me, the best way the document approaches Columbus, MS mirrors how it approaches tough problems total. In talking with representatives at a neighborhood construction company, the Fallowses recognize that Accomplice pleasure nonetheless noticed in portions of town is usually a detriment to new trade. “For those who might offend any individual who desires to take a position right here or desires to create jobs right here, why would you do this?” one of the crucial brokers says. There’s an implied settlement that monuments to racism, be it the Accomplice flags proven in cemeteries or the statues status in parks, must be ousted for the betterment of the neighborhood, however there’s additionally a hesitancy to in fact say that; to take a stand on anything else explicit, such a lot as lean at the outdated adage, “No matter’s just right for trade!”

As we’ve all realized the exhausting manner, operating The united states like a trade is a foul thought, and restricting your research of its small cities to trade selections feels similarly inaccurate — ah, there’s that phrase once more, which means that my internal voice is telling me to close up and cross the mic.

HBO Our Towns documentary Deborah Fallows James Fallows

Deborah and James Fallows in “Our Cities”

Matt Cadwallader / HBO

Libby: That quote you discussed from the Q&A truthfully bowls me over, Ben, as it sort of feels to be one of these succinct meditation at the shortcomings of “Our Cities” with out ever understanding it.

The filmmakers got down to make a movie that explored The united states for all its sins and flaws and, within the procedure, have a good time the ones folks running exhausting to make their communities a greater position. However inside the context of the movie, the rustic’s screw ups are in large part sidelined or used simply to set-up one thing uplifting.

As a complete, “Our Cities” lacks stakes. For those who reduce the conflicts and headaches present in The united states, the issues that may pressure you to the depths of melancholy and threaten hundreds of thousands of voters on a daily foundation — like excessive poverty, racism, loss of well being and circle of relatives services and products — then there’s not anything to be uplifted from. If all a documentary is appearing me is sure other people making adjustments on the planet round them, that’s fantastic, nevertheless it’s no longer inspiring me to move out and do the tough paintings of making improvements to my very own neighborhood.

Let’s return to South Dakota. You probably did a perfect process outlining this identical slight-of-hand trick with reference to the trade, so let me attempt to expound in this tendency with reference to cultural conflicts.

It’s glorious that the documentary incorporated pictures of a pow wow from Flandreau — which is 45 miles clear of Sioux Falls, when you’re retaining observe — and it used to be transferring to listen to concerning the plans being made to stay the Dakota language alive in a brand new era. All of the state of affairs turns out difficult.

However that’s no longer the part of it. South Dakota is house to 5 of the 50 poorest counties within the nation, maximum of them containing reservations. Within the remaining week, the U.S. fifth Circuit Courtroom of Appeals struck down important portions of the legislation that provides Local American households choice within the adoption of Local American youngsters.

My level (and I swear I’ve one) is that pictures of that pow wow is much more tough whilst you’re reminded of the continued plight of the folks concerned.

And that is true around the board. As you discussed with Columbus, I sought after to listen to extra from individuals who needed to exist on this city because it incrementally distances itself from its plantation homes and accomplice flags. I sought after to listen to extra concerning the yuppification of Bend, OR and from that man in Eastport, ME whose 15-year plan took the ongoing destruction of the planet’s ecosystems under consideration.

Say what you are going to about The united states, however I believe everybody can agree that this nation is a messy whinge who lives for drama. Don’t give me a documentary that tries to crop out that mess to make for a prettier image.

Which is a truly long-winded manner of having to my actual query for you: Jeff Daniels!?

Ben: Ah, Jeff Daniels. As though any individual else may just correctly include the common-or-garden origins of Midwestern small cities, seeing the Emmy-winning lead of “The Newsroom” and unjustly Oscar-snubbed “Dumb & Dumber” superstar pop up early in “Our Cities” — jamming away in his touring blues band — I puzzled if I’d misinterpret the documentary’s synopsis: Had been we going to take a commute to Chelsea, Michigan (pop. 4,944) and listen to a little bit about beginning a not-for-profit theater that gives assets to Midwestern actors, playwrights, and artists? Was once the person who proudly donned Carhartt for this yr’s Golden Globes rite about to give an explanation for what, precisely, about small-town existence in Michigan proved extra alluring than the intense lighting fixtures of Hollywood?

Alas, it used to be to not be. Daniels used to be simply in West Virginia for a gig and most effective within the document for additonal colour, although given the opposite on-camera topics in “Our Cities,” I will have to say I used to be stunned that the filmmakers didn’t come with his statement anyway. As you discussed, Libby, such a lot of of the speaking heads had been somewhat outstanding figures of their communities, lots of whom had one thing to realize from portray their city in the most productive imaginable gentle. We heard from mayors, trade builders, trade homeowners, and a person in Maine who serves as the manager director of the port authority, a reserve police officer, and the chairman of the county commissioners, all whilst “flipping actual property at the aspect.” His level used to be truthful: You must love dwelling there to reside there, however those aren’t the one other people on the town. For a complete profile, we want to listen the cons, the dust, the darker portions, and only a few topics had been prepared to talk to that.

This brings me again to my final dilemma with “Our Cities.” What it’s — a documentary highlighting underrepresented American towns and cities, basically during the techniques that experience saved them afloat — is ok. But it surely had the prospective, and perhaps even the accountability to do extra. Simply making an allowance for the gaps and questions we’ve discussed, there’s obviously some other aspect to the glossy coin introduced through “Our Cities.” Possibly this must’ve been a docuseries, highlighting one city in step with episode. Possibly the function merely wanted a more potent thesis. Possibly it’s precisely what the filmmakers sought after, and we’re creating a mountain out of a molehill.

However I’ve come to be expecting a lot more than “great” and “lovely” from HBO documentaries, simply as I call for greater than pleasantries from any individual who desires to make a remark about my cherished small cities.

For much more about how “Our Cities” depicts small city (and large town) existence, take a look at this week’s episode of IndieWire’s TV podcast “Thousands and thousands of Monitors” as hosts Deputy TV Editor Ben Travers, Inventive Manufacturer Leo Garcia, and TV Awards Editor Libby Hill attempt to come to a decision as soon as and for all who is correct voice of small city The united states. (Trace: It’s no longer Leo.)

Plus, the group parses out the logistics in the back of HBO’s newest fictional authentic collection “The Nevers” and breaks down the result of remaining week’s Director’s Guild of The united states Awards. Consistent with ongoing social distancing mandates, this week’s episode used to be once more recorded from the relief of everybody’s respective flats, and we’re once more providing audience a video model of the podcast, as embedded above.

Millions of Screens” is to be had on AnchorApple PodcastsBreakerGoogle PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher. You’ll subscribe here or by the use of RSS. Proportion your feedback with the crew on Twitter or pontificate within the feedback. Evaluation the display on iTunes and make sure to tell us when you’d like to listen to the group deal with explicit problems in upcoming editions of “Thousands and thousands of Monitors.” Take a look at the remainder of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.

“Our Cities” premiered Tuesday, April 13 on HBO. The documentary is to be had to move by the use of HBO Max.

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