2 of Local High School Grads Films Show at SXSW

From March 10th through March 18th, SXSW — the annual South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas – premiered over 100 films this year, and two have something in common: ties to the Little City.

“Join or Die” and “Riders on the Storm” are two documentary features focusing on modern-day national and international issues. Their directors, Rebecca and Peter Davis for the first and Jason Motlagh the latter, are all alums of the former George Mason High School — now Meridian.

After their showings in Austin, which Falls Church Vice Mayor Letty Hardi made the trip down to see, the makers of the two films talked with the News-Press. 

‘Riders on the storm’ co-directors Jason Motlagh (left) and Mark Oltmanns (right). (Photo: Jason Motlagh)

Siblings Rebecca (Class of ‘01) and Peter Davis (Class of ‘08) co-directed “Join or Die,” a documentary about why someone should join a club and how “the fate of America may depend on it.” The idea of the film came from Rebecca after having been a producer at NBC News and seeing various tragedies such as school shootings and teen suicides. Through Peter, she came to know about social scientist Robert Putnam, whose book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community” dives into the decline of social capital in the United States since 1950. 

Peter Davis, a student in Putnam’s Community in America course while attending Harvard University, said he was able to connect what Putnam talked about in his book about social isolation and a “decline in community” with what Rebecca was seeing in her news stories. When Putnam was about to retire from Harvard in 2018, Rebecca and Peter said that was when they decided to direct a film about Putnam and his view on how clubs/associations/shared missions can save a democracy in crisis.

“It’s been five years since we started this journey,” Rebecca said. “We were really looking for a chance to zoom out and do something that got a little closer to what was the root cause of some national problems.”

As for how the Little City inspired them to direct and produce the film, Rebecca said her and Pete wouldn’t have been able to make the movie had they not grown up in Falls Church. They said they witnessed their mother and father both being civically involved in the community, the former being a recycling coordinator for their neighborhood and the latter being on an English as a Second Language (ESOL) committee for the local school system. 

“It wasn’t a reach for us to understand what Bob was talking about why a strong civic life is good for the community,” Rebecca said. “It was a very civic time when we were growing up in Falls Church and I know Falls Church remains a very civic community today.” 

The title “Join or Die” comes from the famous Benjamin Franklin political cartoon about the disunity in colonial America. Putnam’s words and work are discussed throughout the documentary, mainly on how joining a civic group is an important factor in a functioning nation, as well as how these groups affect people individually.    

“We have these huge projects all across the country trying to get people to stop smoking for public health or try to solve air pollution for asthma,” Peter said, “but we don’t have a robust public health movement of saying ‘Our country has to start valuing social connection for individuals’ sake, not just for America.’”

As for how the co-directors want their film to impact audiences locally Peter said he hopes people in Falls Church watch the film. He said he’s heard from older residents that the Little City used to have more engagement in civic groups than it does currently. 

“Even though the city is still doing well and we grew up and saw the joy of civics,” Peter said, “we’re still getting hit by lack of social connection and hopefully there’s an inspiration to get back to those peak times in F.C.” 

Jason Motlagh’s “Riders on the Storm” focuses on two brothers in Afghanistan who battle to make their names and keep a family legacy alive as their country falls apart. Falls Church native Motlagh, the co-director and producer of the film, said he was inspired to make “Riders on the Storm” after documenting the “grim” aspects of the war up close in Afghanistan since 2006. 

“I fell in love with the country and its people and wanted to share a rich part of their culture that outsiders seldom see,” Motlagh said. 

As a 1999 GMHS alum, Motlagh said he started making films in Falls Church, using a “crappy handycam and tapes,” and hopes his latest film will be screened in the Little City soon. 

“That was some of the most fun I’ve had making films,” Motlagh said. “Collaborating with friends was, and still is, the best part.” 

During production, Motlagh said U.S. forces were withdrawing from Afghanistan, leading the Afghan government to collapse and the Taliban taking control. A low point during filming was “witnessing life” as the main subjects knew it “slipped away,” and the pain they felt having to abandon their homeland.

“War and loss are inseparable from our film,” Motlagh said. “But we want audiences to experience Afghan culture in a vibrant and immersive way that stands apart from the gloomy, military-centric approach typical of many films.”