After a mass shooting, the national gun debate usually consists of predictable talking points and neglects the underlying causes. American Totem explores those underlying causes, the role of the gun in the American story, and its ability to both create and destroy community.
Inclusion StatementBoth in front of and behind the camera, a diverse group of people and ideas have contributed to the film. The director and the creative producer are women. Voices in the film include a balance of men and women, rural and urban areas, pro-gun and gun control, Black and White voices.
About The Project
"The debate about guns is distracting us from the issues we really should be focusing on, which are how do we create a society where we have less violence, where people feel like they’re included?"
-Dr. Saul Cornell
The day after a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults in the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, talk radio host Sue Hilderbrand was scheduled to interview an expert on 'peace ecology'. With news of the horrific events weighing heavily in the studio, a rational discussion of peace and non-violence was not possible. Hilderbrand broke down on live radio.
Only five months earlier, a gunman killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. And a year earlier, 8 people were gunned down in a hair salon in Seal Beach, California. And before that, and before that...
Like many Americans, Sue thought the solutions to these public mass shootings were obvious. So, in 2015, a small team of filmmakers began the journey to document them. But what they found is not what they expected.
With an earnest quest to understand gun violence, and a few credit cards, the American Totem team traveled across the country, talking with all kinds of folks about firearms. From northern California, to Texas, to New York, and to points in between, what became clear is that firearms are more than simply tools.
For many Americans, there is an emotional connection to this object, transcending time and place, and representing family and tribe. Firearms are symbolic of identity, community and belonging. To other Americans, they are symbolic of violence and racial oppression.
People interviewed include gun rights and gun control activists; experts on suicide, domestic violence, American history, and folklore; philosophers and gun club members. The film's approach is non-partisan and does not take a position on gun control (those films have already been made).
Generally speaking, the current gun debate can be boiled down to one side arguing for fewer guns and the other side arguing for more guns. Statistics are thrown in and quickly countered with different statistics. Our documentary film does not recycle this debate but instead focuses on the American identity connected to the firearms, and how that identity is being challenged in this time of change.
American Totem traces the American gun narrative back to early 20th century marketing by the gun industry and to Hollywood movies and television. Marketing campaigns and masculine icons like John Wayne romanticized the rugged individual and taught young boys how to be a 'real man'. Firearms are a totem, a sacred object, in the American story. It should surprise no one that those objects are not easily given up. Not even with statistics.
Creating & Destroying Community
American Totem explores the costs of the American gun narrative to communities under stress, making the connection between guns and domestic violence, mass shootings, and suicide. It also highlights the power of this same object to create a sense of community for many people in a time of political, economic and social change.
Today, Americans are afraid. According to a recent Gallup poll, most gun owners report owning firearms for self-defense, and not for hunting, even though the murder rate is half of what it was at its peak in 1991 (FBI). Because democracy requires a willingness to engage with people with whom you may disagree, many question whether an armed society can be an open society.
Where We Are Now
The film is nearing the end of the post production phase. The storytelling is finished but we need finishing funds. We need to elevate the production values so it can be received by a wider and more diverse audience.
Why is this important?
Without an understanding of the American gun story, the number of gun-related deaths will not come down. American Totem refocuses the discussion towards this understanding. We need your support to get us there.
If you agree, JOIN US!
**All contributions are tax deductible**
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American Totem is participating in the Hometown Heroes Crowdfunding Rally, in partnership with Seed & Spark and Duplass Brothers Productions. In addition to reaching our financial goal, we need to secure 1,000 followers on this page by October 17th. This will make us eligible for interest-free loans when we get to the distribution stage.
If you believe that the national gun debate needs to be refocused to a conversation, please CONTRIBUTE now, FOLLOW this campaign, and SHARE this page with your friends and family.
Thank you for supporting American Totem.
Voices in the Film
Melina Abdullah, PhD - Pan-African Studies, California State, Los Angeles
Rakem Balogun - Co-founder, Huey P. Newton Gun Club
scott crow - Author,
Setting Sights: Reflections and Histories on Community Armed Self Defense
Julianna Crowder - Founder, A Girl and A Gun
Yafeuh Balogun - Co-founder, Huey P. Newton Gun Club
Soraya Chemaly- Journalist and Author, Rage Becomes Her
Firmin DeBrabander, PhD - Maryland Institute College of Art, Do Guns Make Us Free?
Bigg Flawliss - Rapper/Actor
Saul Cornell, PhD - Fordham University,
A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America
Pamela Haag, PhD - Author, The Gunning of America
Mark Kaplan, PhD - UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs
Tina Maldonado - Firearms Instructor
Fatima Mann - Co-founder, Counter Balance: ATX
Joan Neuberger, PhD - University of Texa, Austin, Gun Free UT
John E. Price - History, Penn State University
Harel Shapira, PhD - Sociology, University of Texas Austin, Waiting for Jose
Robert Trausch - Community Organizer
Cody Wilson - Director, Defense Distributed
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About This Team
Sue Hilderbrand - Producer / Director
Sue Hilderbrand been a producer and host of live political talk radio for over a decade, covering issues ranging from electoral politics and foreign policy, to homelessness and the environment.
She is a longtime community organizer and teaches in the Political Science Department at both California State University, Chico and Butte College in Northern California. Both her academic training and her community organizing background provide the skills required to take on this complex topic. As a first time film maker, Sue has relied heavily on a talented team to bring this film into being.
Bronwyn Berry - Producer
Peabody Award-winning Bronwyn Berry has produced scripted and unscripted films and television shows on both sides of the Atlantic. She recently completed production on the feature documentary Love, Gilda for CNN Films/Magnolia Films which opened the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. In addition, she created and executive produced Durban Beach Rescue, an original docu-reality series for The Travel Channel (2 seasons); and a reboot of Wonderama, the popular New York-based children's show. (PIX 11, 2 seasons). Bronwyn's many credits as producer and director include Talk To Me, the Peabody award-winning documentary for Sesame Workshop; the television series Sesame Street South Africa (4 seasons), and narrative series Gaz’lam (4 seasons - weekly drama); and The Wild, a daily drama that she also created. A graduate of the University of Johannesburg, Bronwyn is a member of the Producers Guild of America and NYWIFT. She currently resides in New York City.
John Osborne - Producer
John Osborne is a writer, producer, and filmmaker. He has worked as a Production Assistant and Location Manager on both Hollywood and Independent films. As an Associate Programmer for the American Documentary Film Festival (AmDocs) in Palm Springs, California, he travels throughout Europe attending looking for good documentary films. He also works with the Mendocino Film Festival in Mendocino, California, as an interviewer and videographer.
Dale Price - Sound Designer
Dale is a thirty year veteran audio engineer professionally plying the sonic disciplines of recording, live sound, A/V, creation, and consulting. His broad audio skill-set comes from a do-whatever-it-takes customer service mentality servicing diverse clients’ needs in Butte County and the North Valley of Northern California.
Jim Miller - Editor, Animator
For over 25 years, Jim has produced content for a multitude of media types; from live broadcast news and musical events to documentaries, commercial advertising and non-profit promotions, including his work as Principal editor, and managing post production for the PBS series “Music Gone Public”. He main interest is in producing content that focuses on community building and the common ground.
Dan Carter - Cinematographer
Dan has worked professionally in video production for thirty years. He has experience in short and long form programs as a producer, director, editor, camera operator and Director of Photography.
Steve Tchudi - Archival Researcher
Stephen taught English at Michigan State University and the University of Nevada before moving with his family to Yankee Hill, California to create an organic farm. He volunteers with several community organizations, and produces and hosts a weekly environmental program on KZFR Community radio.
Quinn Winchell, editing
Jake Frank, editing
Kyle Miller, editing
Jacob Hilty, editing