When Eleanor Goodrich was growing up in Smyth County she loved reading and storytelling. Today, she’s telling other people’s stories in a way that she hopes will help bridge this country’s divides.
The daughter of Antoinette Goodrich, owner and operator of Marion’s Laughing Water Farm, Eleanor appreciated the tight-knit nature of the small rural community. She liked going to church with people she knew and being connected with others.
When her fiancée, Aaron Port, was accepted to film school in Los Angeles, Eleanor expected all that to change. She thought she’d be living in a different world.
Instead, just down the road, she got to know Mrs. Bell, who accepted fruits and produce from everyone in the neighborhood and then redistributed them among the neighbors.
As she walked daily to the school where she taught, many of the kids played in the streets. Eleanor found everyone knew everyone else’s name.
One day when she was struggling to move heavy pallets, a stranger offered to help and did so kindly.
Her working class neighborhood proved not to be so different from Smyth County.
Yet, she did encounter some shifts in perspective.
When people heard she was from the South, they often thought she must be racist.
At the same time, friends here often thought her California neighbors who were protesting racial injustice were rioters.
One day, she was invited to a community coalition meeting. The topic was healing for individuals who’d lost someone to police violence.
Eleanor remembered that she was partnered with a man younger than she. He asked her how many people she’d lost to police action.
Her answer was none.
His was three.
Eleanor asked the gathering what would help.
They responded: “Police who know us.”
Eleanor thought, “That’s what we have in Marion.”
She began to think about the country’s divisions and how more people just need to come together in rooms and talk – liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, people of color and white, young and old.
“We need to do something,” she remembers thinking.
Two years later, she and Aaron got a call from a friend, letting them know about a project that might be the answer to her desire to act.
“It was such a serendipitous moment,” Eleanor reflected.
The couple was hired to serve as assistant editors for The Reunited States. Over time, Eleanor said, they developed such a strong relationship with the documentary team that ultimately they took the lead editing posts.
On Feb. 11, they got to celebrate with the rest of the team and thousands of viewers as a Red and Blue Carpet Premiere launched the 80-minute documentary to the world. The film tells the “stories of everyday heroes on the difficult journey of bridging our political and racial divides.”
Based on Mark Gerzon’s book “The Reunited States: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide,” the documentary was featured in 13 film festivals during 2020.
Beyond the documentary, The Reunited States’ website - https://reunitedstates.tv/ - offers tools to help individuals take the necessary steps to bridge the divide and have difficult conversations.
Eleanor and Aaron appreciated the documentary director, Ben Rekhi’s, can-do attitude.
Hollywood, the couple said, often thrives on division, and Rekhi initially received numerous negative responses to the documentary: It wouldn’t work; people are tired of politics, and the like.
However, Eleanor said, “Ben’s a force of positivity.”
Aaron noted that at times the work was daunting. It was the pair’s first feature-length film. Rekhi would remind them: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
They started over more than once or even twice.
At one point, they had the stories of 10 different people, but realized that the focus needed to be tightened and ultimately shared four stories.
As they worked, Eleanor said they learned that “everyday Americans aren’t interested in [living with] this division.”
As the date of the project’s release neared, so did publicity.
Van Jones and Meghan McCain joined the team. The New York Times reviewed the work, and a fight on The View about the film proved its need.
Now, thousands of people have watched it.
Eleanor reflected, “We’re not pretending healing will be simple or straightforward.” She also admitted that one of the biggest challenges is for people to acknowledge their neighbors and be willing to work on the situation.
“Through difficult conversations,” she said, “we come up with better solutions… not by changing the other person but by going in with curiosity and a willingness to listen, to understand” another’s view.
Aaron added, “We all have something in common.”
On some level, Eleanor said, everyone knows how to do the work. “We’ve all had a disagreement with someone and had to work on our relationship.”
Aaron believes The Reunited States will make a difference. He reflected, “We were passionate about the project before it was a project.”
They’re not alone in their passion.
Ebenezer Lutheran Church in Marion hosted a virtual discussion about the documentary.
The church’s pastor, Daniel Hess, said the idea grew out of a Sunday School class discussion about the necessity of hard conversations.
Hess observed that church is still a place where Democrats and Republicans gather and sit side by side. Congregations also span generations.
“It’s a place where we can and should start building bridges,” Hess said.
Hess, who has watched The Reunited States, said he “found it to be very convicting.”
There is “truth to both sides,” the pastor said.
For now, Eleanor and Aaron are taking a break, enjoying time with their families in Marion and Florida.
In the near future, they hope to begin work partnering with DJs and musicians to celebrate this country’s National Parks and National Monuments. The duo hopes to film music being recorded at the various locations to spotlight their wonder.
“We have some of the most incredible spots,” said Eleanor, who reflected that after spending much of the pandemic in Los Angeles, she’s craving time in nature.