Our very own NICK on “Learning to Be Authentic”

When I first met Follow the Leader’s director Jonathan at Pennsylvania Boys State six years ago, I enjoyed being the guy (if only a 16-year-old guy at that) behind the camera – not in front of it.

In fact, I first struck up conversation with Jonathan because I was fascinated with his camera (especially the fluffy microphone), and wanted to learn more about his project. In high school, I co-produced a documentary about a failed dam project in my hometown of Milford, Pennsylvania. And I loved picking up the old home camcorder on the weekends to make ridiculous short movies with some friends in my neighborhood.

Being a participant in a film was something I never imagined nor desired, and I was particularly skeptical about a film focused on me. So what was it like?

Participating in a documentary is not like acting in a movie. That much I knew from the start and was comfortable with, because I never liked acting. It is also not like being interviewed for the 6:00 News (even for a very long interview!). This second difference took some time for me to learn and was, perhaps, the aspect I struggled with the most.

For anyone who aspires to be involved in politics, being authentic on-camera, or with any other recording device for that matter, is tough. Gosh, you might do something stupid, or say something that can sound terribly or be taken out of context (or, worse, in context). But Jonathan would always encourage authenticity because, he said, people respond better to human stories and honesty…the good, the bad and the ugly.

OK, thanks for the CNN answer…now what do you really think?,” he would say.

As I got to know Jonathan more, and frankly trusted him more, participating in the documentary was more like going through life with a new friend who just happened to bring a camera along to our adventures and occasionally shouted some questions. I would at times forget altogether that a microphone was clipped to me (which made for some awkward moments!).

In the end, it all paid off. In watching the film for the first time, I saw my very real, unfiltered life – not an interview on the news. I saw a journey of political persuasion, personal relationships, and professional development – being shaped by time, experience and my environment.

And while my personal reaction to some scenes was like sucking on sour candy, I got the sense from those around me that they could relate to my story and learn something from it for their own lives. At a recent preview screening in Washington, D.C., a member of the audience even thanked me for opening up my life, realizing it’s not an easy thing to do.

So I’m glad I took Jonathan’s advice about authenticity and just being me. (A certain Republican nominee for president might also stand to benefit from doing the same.)

Changeworx E-News: Summer 2012

Welcome to the first-ever Changeworx E-News!

We’re a little bit late in moving fully into the 21st Century…but it’s our pleasure to announce our new website, tell you about our current Kickstarter campaign for Follow the Leader, and share other updates about four films currently in production!


As you may know, a big focus of ours these days is the engagement campaign to complete & launch distribution for our seven-year labor of love, Follow the Leader. As one of our main participants (thank you, Nick!) said in an email to his friends the other day “Jonathan’s poured his heart and soul, not to mention loads of personal money, into this film for 7 years…so I hope you can take just a few minutes to check it out and consider lending your support!”

A heartfelt coming-of-age story with a bit of comedy thrown in, Follow the Leader will be used to spark meaningful & reflective conversations about American political realities in the months surrounding this important US Election Season. Through our linked transmedia project Reality Check Interactive, we’re saying that yes we can talk to all sides, and indeed each of us must engage with people who disagree with us in a fair-minded way for the good of our country.

As bitter political feuds seem to erupt everywhere in public, quietly behind the scenes we’ve been screening Follow the Leader for groups as diverse as Roosevelt Institute (a non-profit carrying forward the legacy of Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt) and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. You can see more on that, including exclusive video, in our updates on the Kickstarter page next week. We hope you’ll join us & spread the word – a personal email from you to a friend with the Kickstarter link
(www.kickstarter.com/projects/followtheleader/follow-the-leader-and-reality-check-interactive) is the best way to get someone to take action!

Director Hemal Trivedi shares a story & a laugh with Orlando Bagwell (Ford Foundation) at ITVS’s Diverse Muslim Voices Exchange organized in Honolulu, Hawaii.


For the past three years, Changeworx has also partnered with Manjusha Films on another timely and critical coming-of-age story – this time set in Pakistan near where Osama bin Laden was killed. Featuring unique access, Two Children of the Red Mosque is the story of a twelve-year-old girl and boy who pursue different dreams after studying at Pakistan’s most notorious Islamic school. In perpetually uncertain and dangerous circumstances, we wouldn’t be making the amazing progress we are lately without the generous support of Tribeca Film Institute, Center for Asian American Media, IFP, Women Make Movies and our newest funder, The Ford Foundation.

As you know, Changeworx productions can take a while – because our passion is for following real characters and stories as they evolve on-screen. And you can’t typically rush real change. But our same “multicultural dream team” – our fearless leader Hemal Trivedi, Mohammed Naqvi, Naziha Syed Ali, Whitney Dow and I – are also finishing up a short film this week for Al Jazeera, about a school principal’s struggles to get the girls in her village educated. We’ll let you know when Shabeena’s Quest is airing and playing at Festivals too later this year.


Nick & his dad Louis in their DeLorean DMC-12, as featured in Follow the Leader — and previously in the Back to the Future film series

It’s been an exciting time of new opportunities and expansion at Changeworx as we settle into our company’s broader post-recession mission that goes beyond being a production home for my own directing projects. We’re working on more International Co-Productions – and, in addition to the projects mentioned above, we’re enthusiastic about collaborating with Germany’s DreamTeam Medienproduktion on a biography for American audiences of Doug Tompkins (Founder of The North Face and ESPRIT, turned environmental activist and large-scale wilderness conservationist in Chile & Argentina). Next month also sees the release of a project we’re working on with multi-Grammy-winning jazz bassist Marcus Miller (Producer for Miles Davis, Luther Vandross and David Sanborn, to name a few), timed to the release of his amazing new album
Renaissance. And August also marks the launch of Changeworx Educational, our boutique distribution arm that aims to make sure our work and a few other films that chart change over time are seen in as many colleges and schools as possible.


Future Changeworx Newsletters will go out only each season, and periodically when there are special announcements. We look forward to continuing to update you about our ongoing activities, while also looking back on past productions like Sunny Intervals and Showers – which we’ll be releasing next year in a commemorative 10th Anniversary DVD Edition with exclusive features.

Next week, we’ll be announcing a few events in August and September for supporters of Changeworx and Follow the Leader on Kickstarter. We can’t wait to see many of you in-person, and whether we’ll see you soon or not, hope you’ll keep in touch!

With gratitude and good wishes, we look forward to the changes to come,

Jonathan & Team CHANGEWORX

Engagement Campaign | Website | Facebook | Twitter

Shannon Carroll – Head of Educational Outreach
Shannon previously worked for the ethnographic and cross-cultural film distributor Documentary Educational Resources (DER), and for several production companies in the Boston area. During her most recent work at Film and Law Productions, she produced and edited A Civil Remedy (2012), a short documentary that articulates a vision of justice for sex trafficking victims. She was also a lead organizer for a four-day film forum held in Cambridge, “Human Rights and Sex Trafficking.” Shannon is a graduate of Tufts University in partnership with the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, and has also studied at Emerson College and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Amanda Kathryn Roman – Political Engagement Coordinator

Amanda is a transpartisan leader and social entrepreneur with nearly 20 years’ experience in the political sphere and a track record working with politically-engaged non-profits and in grassroots activism. With an extensive background with the political “right,” she’s served on the Republican National Committee and co-created Living Room Conversations with Joan Blades (MoveOn.org’s Co-Founder). A wife and mother of two, Amanda runs her own consulting firm AKR Collaborations, and was recognized by the Independence Party of New York City as a Nonpartisan Trailblazer for her civic engagement work in May, 2012.

Amélie Walker – Web Designer & Developer
Amélie has been constructing a wide variety of websites since 1997 as the owner of Castle Builder Design, which was incorporated in 2005. Among countless other projects, she designed and built all aspects of the Follow the Leader website, based partially on the poster for the film created by artist Charles Ly. Amélie has also been instrumental in consulting on our online strategies overall, including but not limited to this email correspondence you’re reading right now. In her spare time, Amélie is the membership coordinator of Webgrrls NYC and bakes cupcakes.

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Why I made “Follow the Leader”

After living abroad during 9/11 and for nearly a decade, Follow the Leader began as a personal investigation into the politics of today’s youth, whose contradictory views confused me while teaching in the U.S. post-9/11. But rather than trying to define millennial opinion generally, my approach was to follow teens who had signed on wholeheartedly to the “War on Terror” as they became adults. Ben, D.J. & Nick’s stories add new pieces to a media story that has largely assumed millennial youth are simply “liberal”. But providing a fair-minded investigation to the boys’ initially “conservative” ideas was always only part of the point, we wanted to explore how their distinctly different choices on the cusp of adulthood show how kids like them are already redefining what these terms mean as their generation shapes American politics’ future.

Born as Reagan left office and the Berlin Wall fell, Ben, D.J. & Nick were raised to believe in an American exceptionalism that was shattered on 9/11 when we learned that America was great but not invincible (in Ben’s words). As they finish high school and begin college, the film shows moments in their lives during what are typically critical years for the crystallization of political beliefs. Ben, D.J. & Nick’s political obsession does place them in a minority, but their mindsets also distill the political experience of millions of teens at the crossroads of tradition & change – while illustrating the universal process of how people learn to process political ideas.

D.J. and Jonathan

Follow the Leader also encourages readings beyond the classical coming-of-age story on its surface. By sympathetically portraying its characters on their own terms, the film provokes us to reexamine both our preconceptions about youth and conservatives, as well as our own political views. Furthermore, the relative absence women and minorities in a film about future leaders – and the at times politically incorrect views of the characters – asks us to reflect on the entrenched inequalities within the American political system. Did President Obama’s election truly signal America’s political maturity, or instead partly obscure how U.S. politics isn’t as “changed” as many would like to believe? As Election Day 2012 nears, can we think longer-term and consider who we can expect to be America’s new President …in 2040?

(Editor’s note: This post is also published as the “Director’s Statement” on this website.)

Through the Political Looking Glass with Hot Saas



Continued from PART 2 and before that PART 1.

If I were a high school Civics or Government teacher (or a college Political Science professor), I would consider Follow the Leader mandatory viewing for my course, because it shines such a bright light into the realm of political education and development. Even among people who are well-versed on political issues, it isn’t very often that they stop and think about why they carry the political beliefs they do. For the average person, simply believing what you believe is enough. Even if you can justify how you think, it’s still rare for people to understand exactly how they came to those conclusions.

Meta-cognition (particularly about politics) isn’t something we pay very much attention to. The way that Follow the Leader forces its audience to confront not only what they believe but how they came to believe it is practically uncharted political territory. If the right young people see this film, it could have profound effects on the way they think about themselves in the political continuum and maybe that could make the American political landscape a little more rational, along with a little less reactive, jingoistic, and cynical.

If you couldn’t tell, Follow the Leader left a deep resonance. It’s been over a month since I’ve seen the film, and I still find myself wrestling with the implications of Nick, Ben, and D.J.’s journeys. The potential for this film to create a useful dialogue across college campuses throughout the country is simply enormous.

As I said, I had given up politics. It had hurt me so deeply and left me in such a depressed, bitter funk that I had to go cold turkey or it would kill me emotionally. And yet Follow the Leader managed to relight part of that spark in my soul. For some of us, it never completely goes away. Shouldn’t we create a political environment in this country where an air of compromise or jaded cynicism isn’t the inevitability? Perhaps, if enough of our nation’s youth see Follow the Leaderand realize their doubts, transformations, and dreams aren’t solitary instances, we can take the steps to help keep that fire alive for the United States as a whole.

Through the Political Looking Glass with Hot Saas


(Continued from PART 1)

Perhaps because I’ve personally known Nick over the years and my ultimate life path of being involved with a wide variety of organizations only to see a lot of them fall apart or not live up to their own professed standards was very similar to his story in the film, it was the scenes with him that struck me at the deepest level (not that Ben and D.J. didn’t impact me significantly as well). However, even for the most casual political observer, Nick’s intellectual and personal journey over the course of the film is something that everyone can relate to.

Through his young eyes, you see a young adult with both a deep love of public service and a true passion for government and involvement. However, you also see first hand the ambition and confidence that any potential leader has to have. It takes a certain type of mindset (and not in a derogatory sense, a certain sized ego) to believe you have what it takes to be the POTUS (editor’s note: that’s President Of The United States, if anyone reading this isn’t already a political junkie who’s known that since birth). With Follow the Leader, you see how issues like not getting recognized by your father (Ben), a need for a competitive outlet (D.J.), and a considerable desire to prove himself (all three subjects) pushes them to a path with the greatest public acknowledgement.

As I watched the film, I was constantly struck by a feeling as if someone had recorded the last five years of my life, changed some of the minor details, and cast different people to play me. That’s how true of an experience Follow the Leader is. As someone whose sole goal in life was to be elected to public office but found himself so jaded by the obstinacy of the right, and then the incompetence and “weak-kneedness” of the left, that he gave it all up, I found a reflection of myself in these film’s characters despite our complete lack of agreement on the issues.

My own neuroses and long dialectics with friends over the years had already helped me realize what it was that pushed me towards politics as a youth (ambition fueled by a need for power and recognition, after ruthless bullying as a child). But Follow the Leader still managed to help me open my eyes to how I was growing during my pivotal teen years, and point out that there are countless other kids across the country who experienced similar philosophical trajectories.



Through the Political Looking Glass with Hot Saas


Several years ago, at the same time director Jonathan Goodman Levitt’s real-life political coming-of-age documentary Follow the Leader begins, I was in a similar place as the film’s young subjects. I was the same age as Nick, Ben, and D.J., and it was the summer before my senior year of high school. I, too, was attending a Boys State program (like the boys do in the opening sequence of the film). As a young, politically ambitious student with dreams of one day being President of the United States, the only difference between myself and this film’s subjects was geography and the fact that I was a young liberal instead of a young conservative. My own political journey as an adolescent began as a conservative, though, so even more direct parallels still exist.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a small preview screening of Follow the Leader, and I can say with complete sincerity that Follow the Leader was an almost frighteningly accurate and insightful examination of what it means to come of age in our modern political environment. Like no other film, it digs deeply into, unpacks and exposes the social, psychological, and environmental factors that have shaped our current generation of young leaders.

When politicians are displayed on the big screen, it is invariably after they have “made it.” The only moments in politician’s lives (unless they become a nationally significant figure and they write their own memoirs) that we ever see are those times when they’ve reached the national spotlight. What we almost never get to see is Bill Clinton at Georgetown, President Obama as a young high school student in Hawaii, or Mitt Romney at Brigham Young University. Think about that for a second though. In the life of a young intellectual or any young ambitious person, the beginning of college and the final year of high school are the most transformative years of your life. The changes to your personality stay with you the rest of your life and influence your entire worldview.

If your college/high school education accomplishes what it was meant to, your entire system of thought changes. And the way that you analyze and process the world around you is markedly different than when it began. In Follow the Leader, you see these explosive, dynamic years in the lives of young leaders as they’re happening, and as someone who walked virtually the same path as the film’s subjects, it was a surprisingly emotional experience.

(More from Don here on the Participants…Unfiltered Blog this Monday and Tuesday…namely Part 2: CATHARSIS AND REVELATIONS, and Part 3: SEE IT IF YOU DARE – A FILM THAT COULD IMPROVE OUR COUNTRY)

If you want more Hot Saas, and you want it right now, get your fix at the Pop Culture Safari.



Reflections on being a “Main Character”: D.J.

A couple of years ago, I traveled to New York City to pay a visit to Hillary, the woman who is now my wife. I thought that it would be neat to meet up with Jonathan, especially since we had not seen each other in a while; he was in the middle of editing the film at the time. I brought Hillary along with me to spend some time at his apartment in Brooklyn, and he offered to let us see an early version of Follow the Leader.

I had not yet seen anything of the film, so it was intriguing to watch many of the important events of my life unfold on a television screen. By the end of the film, I became convinced that Follow the Leader is not a mere documentary. Instead, it is an intimate glimpse into the lives of three young men who could not have imagined what would become of them just a few short years ago.

I’ll never forget the day when Jonathan asked me if I would be interested in being a subject in the film he intended to make about a few young American leaders. I agreed, and I am sure glad I did. When filming began just over six years ago, I was an ambitious high school junior with what I thought was a definitive grasp on what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was intent on becoming Governor of Massachusetts and running for President of the United States.

In the years that followed, I went on a journey of questioning my motives. When I first became interested in pursuing a political career, I wanted to change the world for the better and make a difference in the lives of each and every individual. Over the next few years, there were too many lessons to count. My thoughts of improving the efficiency of government and the lives of others were at times overshadowed by a shallow desire to simply win elective offices for myself.

Follow the Leader provides a front-row seat to these developments. Although it is tempting, I refuse to give away the film’s “ending.” You’ll just have to see what happens next for yourself. When all is said and done, I hope we come to a similar conclusion: The end of Follow the Leader is not really the end at all. It is only the beginning.

David (“D.J.” if you prefer)
July, 2012

D.J. with the film’s director at a family event, a year after filming had ended.