Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, the HBO documentary Our Towns is a remarkable portrait of America and how the rise of civic and economic reinvention is transforming small cities and towns across the country. Based on the bestselling book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America” by journalists James and Deborah Fallows, the visually stunning feature documentary spotlights ingenious local initiatives and explores how a sense of community and common language of change can help people and towns find a different path to the future.
In 2011, the Fallows created a blogpost for The Atlantic asking their readers to share compelling stories about their towns – from economic setbacks to local struggles or achievements – that have been overlooked by the national press. Within a week, they received over 1,000 responses. For the next five years, they traveled the United States exploring the changes taking place across small town America for what would become their bestselling book. In 2018, filmmakers Ascher and Jordan joined them to revisit eight of those cities, including San Bernardino, CA; Sioux Falls, SD; Columbus, MS; Eastport, ME; Charleston, WV; and Bend, OR.
The film introduces us to a wide range of civic leaders, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists, students, and more, witnessing their love for their communities and the innovative ways they are improving them. The film provides an expansive perspective on America that finds unexpected connections between personal stories, community actions, and the arc of history. Although filmed before the pandemic, Our Towns speaks to how the country, and by extension the world, can find a way forward.
Premiered on HBO April 13, 2021. Streaming On-Demand & HBO MAX.
97 minutes. A West City Films production for HBO.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
“The most eloquent character in the film Our Towns is the camera; the star is the country it surveys, from community to community and coast to coast. There may not be a surfeit of purple mountains in this good-news documentary, but the majesty is everywhere, from circus classes in California to reconstituted sardine canneries in Maine.
There are words, too, provided by Atlantic magazine correspondents James and Deborah Fallows, whose 2018 book of the same name examines the state of “flyover” America and how the communities down there have not only been facing adversity, but turning it to their advantage. The filmmakers are another couple—veteran documentarians Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan—who retrace the authors’ journey through eight of the communities originally visited. As ever, their instinct for the intimate revealing detail (Troublesome Creek, So Much So Fast, Raising Renee) is on display here.” – John Anderson
THE WASHINGTON POST
“In Our Towns, a gently optimistic documentary based on the magazine and book project by journalists James and Deborah Fallows, hot-button conflict and internecine arguments are left behind in favor of an examination of how communities are actually functioning throughout the United States — how neighbors are coming together to solve problems, how once-blighted cities are redefining themselves and how history continues to describe its pendular arc from crisis to solution and back again…
The Our Towns project began in the aftermath of a crushing economic recession; when filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan began filming the Fallowses’ journey, it was before the cataclysmic events of a pandemic, a searing racial reckoning and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But, in some ways, that makes the film all the more potent a reminder that fundamental values still apply, no matter how dispiriting the circumstances: In the six towns profiled here, flexibility, compassion, accountability and creative personal expression win the day…
As an exercise in sincerity, fellowship and earnest inquiry, it might be the most subversive movie in circulation right now.” – Ann Hornaday
THE WASHINGTON POST
“Our Towns, the superb HBO documentary.” – David Ignatius
UNDER THE RADAR
We really enjoyed the dynamic conversation with Callie Crossley on her WGBH radio show.
THE ATLANTIC – A Conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg
The Editor-in-Chief of the Atlantic sits down with Jim and Deb Fallows and us to talk about the project and the state of the country over the past few years.
“Our Towns showcases ‘how communities and individuals and the whole nation respond to crisis’ – a theme as timely and, at best, revelatory and generative in 2021 as it was at the project’s outset.”
“If all politics is local, then Our Towns is the most political film you’ll see this year.”
THE DAILY YONDER
“In both its visual approach and its themes, the movie smartly draws connections between the disparate places featured. It expertly zooms in and out, traces narrative through lines, and demonstrates how far-reaching economic and geo-political forces have shaped lives, and livelihoods, even in our smallest, most remote places…
It’s impressive how many important issues the film fits into the narrative, hitting upon homelessness, opioid addiction, immigration, global trade, the legacy of slavery, climate change, and even the decline of local news. But for all its sweep, when you get past the big-picture, high-minded concerns on the filmmakers’ minds, the heart of this story is found in the details, when its feet are on the ground.
Recent times in America have raised our hackles. As we’ve hunkered down, it’s all too easy to look at distant spots on the map with contempt, to associate those from certain political geographies…with ideologies we can’t recognize or abide by. Our Towns alone won’t fix that, nor will it entirely put to bed the question of what’s American and what’s ‘un-American.’ But it might help you feel a new sense of curiosity or connection regarding distant places on the map, to see the folks who live there not as part of the problem, but as fellow members of a nationwide community, proud of where they come from and ever in pursuit of solutions.”
THE ERIE READER
“All too often when books become movies, those who’ve read the book watch with the comparative eye to judge where the film gets the book ‘right’ and where it falls short in its copy-paste-from-book-to-screen-contouring endeavor….The beauty of the Our Towns film is that rather than working to adapt the book to screen, translating one medium to another, Ascher and Jordan advance the Fallows’ Our Towns narrative while retaining the core themes and values that civic innovation is present at the local level with folks uniting in shared efforts to improve the future of their towns…
All unfurled over more than 90-plus minutes of thoughtful interviews, panoramic sweeps, close-ups on Main Streets, that examine challenges, explore solutions, and leave the viewer thinking of the observation offered by Eastern Mississippi Community College’s Raj Shaunak: “If it can happen here, surely the positive things are replicable elsewhere.”
That is the attraction of the Ascher and Jordan’s film here… the story that America remains in the hands of Americans, an ever-evolving, ever-growing group of people with many, like those showcased here, working on its faults and celebrating its splendor.”
THE ATLANTIC – James Fallows on the release of the film
“The film exceeded our hopes and expectations for conveying the splendor (and also the scarring) of the American landscape; the passion, humor, and self-awareness (and sometimes self-delusion) of people wrestling with challenges for their communities and their country; and the achievements (and also disappointments) of an America that generally escapes the media’s attention…
It is impossible to fully understand history as we are living through it. But everyone who has lived through, and in many cases been battered by, the turmoil of the past few years understands that these times—our times—will be studied and analyzed long after today’s Americans are gone, as one of the critical moments in the nation’s story…”
THE BOSTON GLOBE
“The film doesn’t shy from some of the darker aspects of these locations – they relate histories that include the genocide of Native Americans and pass by Confederate flags flying from homes and monuments. But the stories they tell are inspiring, hopeful, and appeal to the values and experiences of all Americans. It’s also visually lush.”
THE QUODDY TIDES – Eastport, ME
“The city has embraced its contrasts: the working waterfront of fishing industries… in unspoken partnership with the city’s long history as an arts community that has driven the past two decades of downtown redevelopment, tourism and recent telecommuter and early retiree relocation. It’s the little city that might, suggests Fallows; and what it may look like down the road may be less important than the long history of survival that suggests a way will be found no matter what…
Beyond the stories, the filmmakers never forget that it’s the people who make the communities tick. Something both ephemeral and timeless was captured by the camera: the human need to connect and create.”
“OUR TOWNS WILL CHANGE HOW YOU LOOK AT SMALL-TOWN AMERICA
… for me, the most fascinating part of the film comes at the very beginning… a national volunteer-led program to take a census of people experiencing homelessness, known as the “Point-in-Time” count. The cameras follow the San Bernardino volunteers as they interview people living on the streets, many of whom are older or retired. One man says he receives a $300 a month pension and doesn’t know how to live inside. Another says he’s been homeless ever since his mother died. It feels there’s an entire movie hidden in this four-minute segment of Our Towns.
And perhaps that’s the beauty of the documentary: to give you just a small taste of the feature-length film each of these towns deserves. Suffice to say, after you watch Our Towns, you’ll think twice before ever again using the phrase “flyover country.”
We had a terrific conversation with Heath Racela about Our Towns and the impact of the pandemic on the production process and the final film.
OUR TOWNS CIVIC FOUNDATION
The Fallows have created a nonprofit “dedicated to connecting and supporting those leading today’s American renewal, from the ground up.”