The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival has given SLO Review the opportunity to review some of the narrative and documentary feature films on its 2024 program schedule. Follow the links to purchase tickets to see these notable films for yourself.

A Threat to American Democracy

 Join or Die, a provocative documentary feature produced by Rebecca Davis and Pete Davis, tells the story of Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University who believes that America from 1960 to the present has evolved from a society that espoused social connections to one where the precedence of the individual is the focus.

And, he believes, this evolution is threatening our democracy.

Screening later this month at the 2024 SLO International Film Festival, Join or Die is riveting, and well worth seeing.

The film concentrates on Putnam’s concept of “social capital,” described as the relationships among people with common goals who are living and working collectively toward a functional society. It also describes his belief that America’s decline in community connection dovetailed with the advent of television and, in more recent decades, has led to the mass shootings in this country that are now commonplace.

One example: In the 1990s, when the economy was roaring, a majority of Americans at the same time didn’t trust the government. They stopped joining clubs or bowling leagues, and were not attending PTA meetings despite having school-age children. Putnam concludes that these trends in behavior have resulted in the decline of democracy in this country. His years of research in community disconnection led to his writing a book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Prominent figures—among them Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and Princeton professor Eddie Glaude—offer reflections on Putnam’s ideas in the course of the film.

When Putnam and his wife took a trip to Italy years ago, he noted that the country was divided into a number of regions that were governed individually, and the most prosperous regions were the ones with civic groups and a sense of community among the people who farmed, worked in industry, and gathered to listen to sermons and choral singing at church.

While growing up in New Hampshire, Putnam remembers that his father joined the local Odd Fellows Society after his brother had died. He noted three letters on the wall of the Odd Fellows clubhouse: F-L-T, standing for friendship, love, and truth. The brotherhood there ultimately helped Putnam’s dad grieve and reconcile the loss of his brother.

Another example from the film where social capital is evident: some neighborhoods in Black communities where people have common values and practice “generalized reciprocity“—in other words, a “give and take”—where individuals help one another promote education, engage in job training, and meet other goals toward the development and stability of a thriving community.

The takeaway from Join or Die? Join a book club, organize a block party, go to a concert with friends!

You may be saving American democracy.

:: Andrea Heinlein

The screening of Join or Die (run time 99 minutes) at the SLO International Film Festival is sponsored by Hyde Park Partners.