Author's Image
Posted on
our towns


After the “Our Towns” documentary debuted on HBO and HBO Max on April 13, viewers from small towns and big cities alike – and some from abroad – have reached out to share their reactions and two cents, adding to the dialogue of the Our Towns story. Here’s a sampling in the first Viewer Response Roundup:

One viewer compiled a list of 20(!) points she captured while viewing, half of which are:

  1. The spillover effects of not paying attention to our civic and market economies in smaller populated areas will ultimately affect every aspect of our nation.
  2. People really want to perform in a place that means something to them – where they started or a place that they have influence over.
  3. Education is a powerful institution that changes communities – I love that Mississippi and Maine have focused on technical education much like South Dakota.
  4. Our communities in this nation have always been in trouble.
  5. Our history is framed by migration and conflict.
  6. I wished more people recognized that no matter where we live we are more alike than different. I’ll say that again: More alike than different.
  7. A library is often a first stop for newbies in town. 
  8. Recovery takes working together with others who feel a responsibility to their community. 
  9. If there is no scene, make your own scene. 
  10. The number of breweries is a good indicator of a community’s success.

Speaking of breweries, one viewer promoted a new name for a beer: Reality-Based Optimism.

Here’s the context:

It’s as though your respect for the Americans you talk to, and the trust you earn from them, somehow transmutes into their civic kinship with, and their warmth toward, us, the audience. Your empathy, and theirs, enlarges mine – that’s the journey you take us on. If you haven’t trademarked Reality-Based Optimism, I’m going to ask my local brewery to bottle it.

Hope and optimism have been repeated themes in viewers’ outreach. Several juxtaposed that hope and optimism they sensed with that of the perceived division projected at the national level.

One viewer shared:

On the whole, your story sends a hopeful and uplifting message. Despite the polarization and paralysis at the national level, local communities are not waiting for Washington. They are helping themselves deal with the difficulties and challenges they face, and to a large extent, most of them have done well.

The people featured in the documentary reinforce my image of average Americans – hard-working, decent, civic-minded, and resourceful. Their stories are not only interesting, but also optimistic.

In the vein of national division, another viewer wrote:

What I liked most is the idea, I’m sure intentional, that there are many important and interesting stories in America today that have nothing to do with the culture wars.

And when it comes to gaining trust with those being interviewed, one viewer picked up on two words in particular: tatamae and honne.

Your explanation, using the Japanese words for aspects of dialogue, of how in a discussion a person starts with what he thinks people want to hear, and then, if allowed or encouraged to talk longer, gets to what he really means was a powerful prism for the entire film

In the film, Deb explains the meaning and significance of tatamae and honne. I had the chance to ask Deb about that during the Jefferson Educational Society’s Global Summit here, which also featured James Fallows and West City Filmmakers Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan.

Other viewers encouraged future Our Towns trips to their towns to see the remarkable things happening there, like this note from one viewer about his local library:

Our library in Stamford, Connecticut is very much the sort of institution you would want it to be. Hugely effective in building the community, which continues to transform itself from heavy industry along the Long Island Sound into the biggest business hubs between NYC and Boston. 

Libraries have been, and continue to be, a major topic of the Our Towns canon. Their impact in communities such as Bend, Oregon and Charleston, West Virginia are featured in the film.

There have also been many responders writing in to tell of their experiences in the places featured in the film. And, some have articulated their appreciation of being introduced to people and places they otherwise might not have met or thought to visit.

One viewer wrote:

And even though I haven’t set foot in the Inland Empire, Columbus, Charleston, Eastport, or Sioux Falls, the marvelous thing about the film was that I feel like I have a sense of having visited each one of those communities for the brief time I spent learning about them this afternoon while watching the program.

Another wrote:

We’ve met people we won’t soon forget, and they are collectively a booster shot against the depressing bitterness we have been living through.

“Our Towns” continues to be available on HBO and HBO Max. And, towns and cities have begun hosting screenings, with the first in Sioux Falls, where the Our Towns journey began and continues. Stay tuned for more to come – and keep writing with your reactions and stories!