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American filmmaker Jonathan Goodman Levitt had been returning to the United States each summer from London to teach high-school and college classes when, 12 years ago, he encountered a vastly different crop of students.
While he was an ocean away when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 took place, his students were not and they were different because of it.
Levitt said he was struck by “how radically, really, the views of students I had had changed about politics and world affairs.”
That’s when he had the idea for a documentary about how young people’s thoughts on politics are formed and reshaped.
The result, “Follow the Leader,” was released at last year’s Republican and Democratic national conventions, but Levitt’s film is just now receiving a local theatrical release at the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax, Va., where it is showing through Thursday.
Levitt spoke with thousands of teenagers before settling on documenting the political activities of three white, 16-year-old male conservatives. Starting in 2006, Levitt followed them, paying particular attention to how their belief systems were challenged and sometimes changed, and he ends the film with their decisions in the 2008 presidential election.
DJ Beauregard and Nick Troiano change the most politically, but all three experience doubt and personal growth. Rather than be a documentary strictly on politics, “Follow the Leader” was meant to be a coming-of-age tale of three political teenagers, Levitt said.
Accordingly, the film doesn’t debate the merit of its subjects’ decisions to stray from or stay in the Republican Party. Instead, it explores how and why people change their mind.
“I think we have much too much focus in America about staying the course, not changing your mind and not thinking things through and coming to a conclusion, especially in politics,” Levitt said. “Flip-flopping on an issue is a really derogatory term, but I think we can’t be expected and we can’t expect our politicians to really have a grasp on every issue under the sun.”
While it’s not exactly uncommon for strong-headed youths to change their minds during adolescence, the three young men stand in for a generation whose lives were deeply shaped by 9/11, and during a time of increasing political polarization.
Levitt said he is frequently asked why he chose three white males to be the documentary’s subjects. He acknowledged that there are already plenty of white men on television, but said it’s not often that a documentary takes an unbiased look into conservatives.
“I think that a fair-minded portrayal of this half of the country ... is really warranted,” he said.
Ultimately, Levitt said his film isn’t meant to be a call of support for an ideology but a call for people to consistently re-evaluate their political stances.
“I think I want people to be surprised and perhaps to rethink some of their own positions and to rethink how they came to think what they think about politics,” he said.
The film has a page on Tugg, a crowdsourcing website that gauges interest in films with small releases and helps bring films to smaller markets.