Editor's note: Today's is the first installment in a new series by Alternative contributor Lisa Golda called "Activism Spotlight," through which she will explore the personalities and activities of Bloomington's activist community.
"Some people say it's preaching to the choir. I say, absolutely, and I will continue to preach to the choir."
Nate Johnson has committed to educating voters in Bloomington, like-minded or otherwise, through Reel Democracy, a local organization that hosts free screenings of politically oriented documentaries at least twice a month. This weekend, Reel Democracy, with sponsorship by the Cinemat, presented multiple screenings of "Outfoxed; Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism," the latest Robert Greenwald documentary. Outfoxed demonstrates that Rupert Murdoch and his network, Fox, are anything but "fair and balanced."
The mission statement of Reel Democracy states that it is "a film forum that hosts public screenings and discussions of politically-relevant films. Our hope is that these films will contribute to a more informed electorate."
Johnson, Stan Clarke, and Cindy Hoffman, as well as some other individuals who are no longer actively involved, founded Reel Democracy in February of 2004 following a political documentary screening that some of them attended together. Johnson recalls that a friend of his turned to him during the film and said, "We should do this every week!" As it turned out, Clarke had been pondering a similar project on his own. Clarke and Johnson joined forces and, with the added support of Cindy Hoffman and others, many of whom are members of the Bloomington Peace Action Coalition, Reel Democracy was born.
Hoffman in particular wished to catch the attention of IU students, the youngest and perhaps least informed voters, prior to spring break and the end of the semester. Reel Democracy's first event featured another Greenwald film, Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election, about that election and the dubious circumstances surrounding it in Florida.
Johnson intends to help viewers sharpen their intellectual skills by moderating the discussions following the films shown at the Monroe County Public Library. "It's hard for people to discuss issues like this in public," Johnson said. "We want to help people get over the social stigma of discussing politics."
Along those lines, Reel Democracy assists other local political action groups bring relevant films to Bloomington. The documentary Pickaxe! was shown in a cooperative effort with the Indiana Forest Alliance. Several events have also been coordinated with the local group Cubamistad, which maintains a sister-city relationship between Bloomington and the Cuban city of Santa Clara.
"Groups on the left tend to be pretty independent," Johnson stated, mentioning weekly breakfast meetings purportedly held by the conservative Washington elite, during which they agree upon the issues, spin, and buzzwords they will collectively promote for the coming week. "Our discussions help viewers to learn the vocabulary of civics and politics. We also want to create a focal point for finding other like-minded allies in the community that we can talk with and relate to." Progressive thinkers without that vocabulary and those allies are, at best, isolated, and at worst, politically impotent.
"That's why I'm going to continue to preach to the choir," Johnson mused, "It's my new goal in life. Who is the more effective agent for social change? Citizen A, who hates the government and the president, but can't explain why; or Citizen B; who is informed, who says; I stand for social and economic justice. Here are the reasons why. Here are the issues."
Having been informed by watching a film, Reel Democracy participants opting to stay for the moderated discussions can practice the communication skills necessary to articulate their political points of view, either to foes or friends.
Johnson was quick to add that Reel Democracy is run like a democracy, and in such spirit, hoping to attract more community participation. They are interested in sharing their workload with people who can volunteer at least two hours a week. "Because we're a new grass-roots organization, we haven't had a lot of time available to do fundraising or grant writing. We'd really like to pursue that."
Johnson mentioned that, although the quality of the films screened so far was excellent, many "big-name" documentaries, such as the upcoming Canadian-made The Corporation, would remain the province of the wealthier Kerasotes Theaters without additional funding.
Although "big-name" may seem an oxymoron when applied to documentaries, virtually half of this year's entrants in the Sundance Film Festival were documentaries. The big daddy of them all, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, has made documentary history in profits, and by taking first place at the Cannes Film Festival. Public television has adopted a weekly series, POV, (Point of View) featuring small documentary filmmakers. And many online resources are available to those parties interested in joining the movement.
"We're not doing anything new," said Johnson. "Groups like this are exploding all over the country. The left-wing political documentary has really taken off as of late."
Lisa Golda is a freelance writer and a classically trained singer. She will begin work on a masters degree in journalism this fall and can be reached at
Visit Reel Democracy.org for a listing of upcoming screenings of Outfoxed at the Cinemat. Monroe County Library screenings take place every last Wednesday. Free cooperative childcare is provided.
To recommend a community activist or organization for the Bloomington Alternative "Activism Spotlight," email the author at