Representing more than a decade of work, the first installment of the filmmaker’s visionary short film project aims to connect and unify Americans one state at a time
At the crossroads where art and purpose meet, you’ll find filmmaker Brad Barber.
During his childhood years in Tennessee, his parents loaded the family into the car on a regular basis to explore surrounding states. Barber’s fate was sealed: he’d gotten a taste for travel — and gained an early appreciation for the diversity and beauty of the U.S.
Fast forward a few decades to Barber’s busy life as documentarian, professor and associate chair for the BYU Theatre and Media Arts Department. All roads have led to this moment. WORLD Channel and pbs.org recently aired the first 29 completed episodes of “States of America,” Barber’s ambitious project to make a short film about one resident from every state in the union.
Born in California and raised in Tennessee, Barber now calls Utah home after earning degrees from BYU and USC. All three states have captured a piece of his heart. His strong connection to each place led to a pivotal question: How do people decide where they come from?
Barber admitted that “the number of years here have tipped the scales a little toward Utah.” It’s where he met his wife, artist Susan Krueger-Barber, a frequent collaborator who has co-directed several “States of America” episodes. After first crossing paths in an honors history class at BYU, the real spark ignited soon after: she was the subject of a student film about artists; he was a cameraman on the project.
Barber’s chosen art form of documentary filmmaking dovetails nicely with his desire to tell stories that capture our shared humanity. Together with TMA professor Scott Christopherson, he made a powerful impact with the multi-award-winning documentary “Peace Officer” in 2015, about a former sheriff who investigates the killing of a family member by the very SWAT team he founded.
Making “States of America” was a natural progression for Barber after his work on “Beehive Stories” for KBYU (now BYUtv), which featured one person from each county in Utah. He has refined his process over the years, hammering out logistics and settling in on a visual style.
In 2009 he adapted one of the early “Beehive Stories” episodes to be the first entry in “States of America” (Utah). As he visited new states on personal and work trips, he started chipping away at the long list of states to feature. He has since received generous support from a variety of department and college grants.
Each finished piece is a snapshot into the life of a single person. Think “Humans of New York” but as a series of short films, set to a pitch-perfect musical score by series composer Micah Dahl Anderson. You meet Joyce from Connecticut, an immigrant from St. Vincent who has adopted six foster children. Then there’s LaVona from Arizona, who was born the day that Arizona became a state in 1912. The stories are authentic and moving, expertly capturing the universal elements of being human.
Sometimes Barber finds subjects through friends and family; sometimes the connection is a happy accident. He and his wife have even become friends with a few of his subjects — including Beth from Iowa, who fed them huge farm-to-table meals in a cabin she and her husband built themselves.
Journey to PBS
From the beginning, Barber ultimately hoped the project would get picked up by PBS. “It was the natural home in my mind,” he said. “This outcome has been so satisfying, to see my films with the PBS logo, a network I revere so much.”
But it didn’t happen overnight, and it took plenty of perseverance and ingenuity.
In 2017 Barber had more than 20 completed films to work with. He saw promise in the freemium model — the idea that offering free content can lead to meaningful outcomes. Barber edited a trailer and hired designer Thea Lorentzen to set up a website. He built a social media presence, then began posting the films for free. Arizona was the breakthrough state, the eighth film posted and the first to garner serious interest from a PBS station.
This led to a partnership with KQED (San Francisco’s PBS station) and a distribution deal with WORLD Channel, a national public television network, to begin airing and streaming the films in 2020 on their web platforms, PBS.org and the PBS app. “The remaining 21 state films we make will likely have the same type of rollout in the coming years,” Barber said.
The Bigger Picture
Barber finds inspiration in a quote by Benedictine nun Mary Lou Kownacki, which the beloved Fred Rogers kept in his wallet: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”
Fostering empathy is always the goal. In a recent essay he composed for WORLD Channel Barber wrote, “‘States of America’ is dedicated to exploring diverse cultural and physical landscapes across the United States.” He hopes viewers will embrace that diversity as a part of our nation’s identity and reject the growing trend of divisiveness.
“Just since starting this project in 2009, we’ve seen the divide in our country become significantly more extreme,” he said. “Some information silos have even helped normalize xenophobia, white supremacy and increasingly dangerous misinformation.”
Healing the divide, he believes, lies with each of us as we seek to broaden our experience both close to home and in the larger world. Barber sees BYU’s mission of Race, Equity & Belonging as a good starting point for important conversations. The next step is turning those words and ideas into measurable action.
“I hope that highlighting a wide spectrum of people and their lived experience in the states they call home can be a small, apolitical nudge toward our better natures,” Barber said. “When we get to know others who are different from ourselves, it is harder to hold prejudice. While I didn’t start out with a political agenda on this project, I do hope ‘States of America’ pokes holes in predetermined beliefs Americans may have about other Americans.”
A New Generation
Barber’s dual role allows him to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of filmmakers at BYU. He mentors three to four students at a time in an advanced-level theatre and media arts class. The learning is very much hands-on: each student is assigned one state’s film to edit in close collaboration with Barber.
“Mentoring is central to everything I do at BYU,” he said. “The focus on collaboration allows me to guide students’ work while refining my own.” He also mentors student-directed documentary capstone projects. The process spans three full terms in the form of classes that cover every facet from research to post-production.
The Road Ahead
“States of America” is still going strong with 21 states left to feature. It’s progressing at a completion rate of about four films per year. But with a family to raise, students to teach — and a pandemic to navigate — Barber has had to press pause on any new filming. “There are lots of stops and starts,” he said. “It takes a long time to do something this big and ambitious.”
Once all 50 states have aired, Barber envisions combining them into one comprehensive film project. In the meantime he will continue to tell important stories, focusing on shared truths of love and compassion, disappointment and struggle — and above all, hope for a better world.
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