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 America's Heart & Soul

America’s Heart & Soul—my first film as a director—came about in a most unusual way. I’ve been a collector of sorts for years. It started when I was in film school; since I couldn’t afford a lot of film, I’d shoot time-lapse photography—shooting only one frame every five-to-twenty seconds. I found that I got the most gorgeous images—storm clouds, flowers opening, and other scenes of nature. These pictures were my passion, and after I graduated, I was able to make a living by making more and more of them. I found that I particularly enjoyed capturing those “magic moments” of landscapes–urban and rural, day and night. It was very fulfilling, but I also felt I was not taking it as far as I could; as I evolved as a person, I wanted to grow as a filmmaker as well.

Everyone dreams of hitting the road, traveling around the country like Steinbeck, meeting new people and seeing parts of the country you never knew existed. I recently had the opportunity to do just that—with a 35mm film camera on my shoulder. What did I find? A nation of individuals, no two alike. I found the most interesting stories in the most unlikely places. I found that though it seems on the surface that we’re divided in so many different ways, it turns out that we’re connected by a deeper bond than I’d ever imagined.

My trip was my way of taking that next step as a filmmaker. I’d started a different collection a few years ago. I collected stories. As I would read about interesting people in the newspaper or in local TV programs, I would file them away. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with them; all I knew is that they were real, human dramas. One day, a revelation came to me—I would blend my passion for pictures with my passion for these human stories by adding people to the “magic moments” I’d been capturing on film for so long.

It seemed like a simple idea, but for my first film, I wanted to honor ordinary Americans who were extraordinary in their everyday lives. The media pay tribute to celebrities and sports heroes for doing extra-ordinary things all the time. That’s fine—they’re very good at it. But America is more than the famous people you read about in the newspaper or see on television. My collection might not make headlines, but I feel that the people in them make up who we are as Americans. I envisioned a film that would be a series of vignettes—without beginning, middle, or end–that provided a forum for these people to tell their stories.

What started out as a simple idea in my head turned out to be a simple film in many ways, but one that I think gets to the core of something more complex. I think it’s some of the most fascinating footage I’ve ever shot. I didn’t shape this material; it shaped me.

So, back to my original question: what did I find as I traveled across America?

Well, for starters, I found that, like me, people are looking for stories that give us inspiration. We don’t need pat answers, but we do need to find that spiritual core. I think people can find that idea very close to home: in ourselves, our cultural diversity.

Since completing the film, many people have told me that they thought it is a perfect film for our times. I think that the timing is perfect for a film that celebrates real people and real values. There’s a lot of uncertainty in our country, a lot of divisiveness. I think the answers are in our roots, in the values that our forefathers have passed down to us: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s my hope that this is a film for everybody, young and old, conservative to liberal, because it isn’t political. It just captures people at face value. I think everyone will find something in this film that they can relate to, something that makes them say, ”Yep, that’s me up there.”

 

Filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg packed up his camera and hit the road on a mission to meet ordinary Americans with extraordinary stories, and to capture the unparalleled beauty of the land and the incomparable spirit of the people. Schwartzberg celebrates the nation through the voices of its people, capturing their values, dreams and passions in a journey that reveals the stories—unusual, captivating, inspiring and emotional—that make us into something more than just a collection of individuals. Soundtrack includes a new original song by John Mellencamp.