Hitting the road in search of 'The American Story'

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Think of a group of college students and a bus, and you might think rock concert.

But the entourage that's been traveling across the United States in an old bus for nearly three months now isn't in search of Phish or a great party. Instead, they're conducting in-depth interviews with a cross-section of the population to create a Web-based interactive documentary, "The American Story Project" (www.americanstory.org).

"We were frustrated that the Web, which is a ... more egalitarian way to communicate, was being used so much for commerce," says Eli Pariser, a recent graduate of Simon's Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass. Conversations with like-minded friends persuaded Mr. Pariser, who has a history of political activism, to help provide an alternative.

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Half a year later the group has a bus, a $110,000 budget, and an advisory board with notables like filmmaker Michael Moore, "This American Life" contributing editor Alix Spiegel, and Newman's Own Organics director Nell Newman.

The group of 12 (six are currently on the road) has conducted 90-plus interviews everywhere from Morgantown, W.Va., a coal-mining town, to Chicago and Oakland, Calif.

The hope is that giving a voice to a diverse group of Americans will not only paint a compelling portrait, but also elicit more-authentic political truths than standard polls.

"The way the media works now, it's easy to think only pundits and experts and celebrities can say interesting things," Pariser says.

This project, he says, shows "politics is a part of [people's] lives. You can imagine, when you look at the next poll, ... the kind of stories behind the statistics."

The participants have also learned a lot about themselves. Cheil Stefanski, a junior at Simon's Rock, says group dynamics and a consensus approach are often more challenging than the interviews.

Although a few interviews have been posted on the site already, much of the production will wait until the group finishes traveling in mid-November. The final vision, Pariser says, is a searchable database of interviews, photos, and sound files in a format that turns traditional documentary format on its head by giving directorial power to the viewer.

And, he says, what they find may be eye-opening. "Everyone always says America is a very diverse country, but until you go out and talk to people you can't understand how different everyone really is. And how similar, on some basic level."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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