The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Filmmakers brought together 40 Americans who didn’t know each other to answer 50 questions. What they found was hope.

This is an excerpt from the film "40 Strangers, 50 Questions." (Video: Brave New Films)
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One evening in May, 40 strangers gathered for a social experiment in a rental film studio just outside downtown Los Angeles.

They were a diverse bunch, ranging across different ages, ethnicity, income levels, and political leanings. What had brought them together was a Craigslist ad, a casting call for “a diverse group of people that are excited to share their point of view of the wold and what we can do to change it.”

“We are trying something new for our next film, a social experiment, but we promise no pranks involved,” read the ad, which was put up by Brave New Films, a non-profit social activism film studio based in Culver City, California.

When the participants arrived at the studio, they were separated by race into boxes marked out by tape on the floor. Some were evidently uncomfortable with the blatant racial segregation, but it was all part of the experiment, they were told.

One participant was Reverend Ahmondra McClendon, an interfaith minister. She recalls being assigned a number, and being told to stand in a box corresponding to that number. It wasn’t until everyone had settled into their assigned boxes that she looked around and thought, “Hey, wait a minute. They’ve got all the black people in this box, and all the Asian people in that box.”

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Then, they were asked a series of 50 yes or no questions. The questions, though simple, were a mix of playful and probing: “Do you believe in love?” “Have you had sex this past week?” “Is anyone in your family currently incarcerated?” “Do you get stares or comments because of how you look?” “Do you feel lonely?”

For each question, those who answered yes walked to one box, and those who answered no walked to another.

“That was it. No judgment. No dialogue. Just this slow, beautiful dance, this coming together, splitting apart, joining and rejoining,” wrote Robert Greenwald, the founder and president of Brave New Films, and the producer of the short film, in a blog post about the project.

For Rev. McClendon, the question that most struck her was “Do you feel we are stronger united than divide?”

That was the only question, she said, for which everyone answered yes.

“I was just so…happy,” said Rev. McClendon.

The inspiration for this project came from a challenge set by friend, said Greenwald.

“Could we do something that showed the connectivity between people without turning it into a terrible TV commercial, or one of those horrible, fake, ‘let’s-hold-hands-and-the-world-will-be-perfect’ kind of ad? That was the impetus,” he said.

Greenwald describes the seven-minute film as a work of “inspirational advocacy.”

Brave New Films usually “put[s] a face on policy” through documentaries like “Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA” and “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars,” said Greenwald. But this project instead sought to “bring all the faces together in some shape or form that would inspire people” through a culture shift — specifically, a recognition that there is more that unites us than divides us.

And as difficult and fraught a time politically as it is today, Greenwald said, it is also an “extraordinary” time for storytelling.

“So many people are so deeply engaged on an emotional and visceral level” right now that the problem of reaching and engaging with them is not a problem today, Greenwald said.

“The hearts are exposed, the brains are exposed,” he added. “You have that amazing receptivity.”

It is this moment in time — and both the challenges and opportunities it presents — that Greenwald is trying to tap into in his role as a filmmaker.

“The stakes seem higher [now] than they have ever been politically, and therefore I feel an enormous responsibility in terms of what we choose to do and how we choose to do it,” said Greenwald.

Greenwald thinks that the project has achieved something important.

They had “caught hope on film,” he wrote in his blog post, and this was a small but important step towards conveying the message that “empathy is not the end but rather a beginning, a place to move forward from.”

Asked what she took away from participating in this social experiment, Rev. McClendon did not miss a beat. The experience enforced her views that people have much more in common than they realize.

“I took away hope,” she said. “I took away a lot of hope. I walked away from the whole thing feeling really good.”