Over a stormy two-year period, The Fire Next Time (POV 2005) follows a deeply divided group of Montana citizens caught in a web of conflicts intensified by rapid growth and the power of talk radio. Many residents were losing their jobs in timber and mining, and blamed environmentalists. Throw into this stressful situation two disturbing elements of America’s hyper-antagonistic politics — right-wing talk radio and anti-government militia organizing — and the tension became volatile.

The Fire Next Time filmmaker, Patrice O'NeillFilmmaker Patrice O’Neill encouraged us to stream The Fire Next Time online in response to the recent violence on town halls about health care, so viewers could see how one community successfully dealt with rising tension and threats of extreme violence. Ever since the PBS broadcast of the 1995 film, Not in Our Town — about the response of Billings, Montana, to a rash of hate crimes — The Working Group (O’Neill’s production company) has been helping local communities deal with intolerance and violence by holding film screenings and community discussions. She wrote in with some thoughts about current affairs, and what we can learn from the film today.

O’Neill: People are riled up. They’re yelling at meetings, threatening local officials. Only strong partisans on either side are brave, engaged or committed enough to attend town hall meetings about contentious issues. Adding fuel to this volatile atmosphere is a radio talk show host who fires up his callers and listeners with scathing attacks on local leaders and citizens who disagree with his views. Does this sound familiar?


Health care rally held outside President Barack Obama’s town hall in Portsmouth, NH on August 11, 2009. Credit: aflcio2008, Flickr

A few years ago, POV presented our documentary about a Northwest Montana town that was deeply divided over local issues. When we started filming in 2002, I began to see some disturbing patterns that made me see how quickly democracy could break down when social and political divisions were combined with a heated media atmosphere.

O’Neill: As we begin the film, we urge viewers to “look closely and you may see your town, too.” As I watch the film today, it is with a sense of deep anxiety, because I fear that the perfect storm portrayed in the film is building now across the country.

But there is good news and some great lessons from a town that has already been through this. As The Fire Next Time was being screened in local meetings and on PBS, a dedicated group of Montana citizens took on the troubles in their town. After years of painstaking work with local government, civic institutions, conflict management leaders that included people on all sides of the issues, the people in the Flathead Valley have worked to improve their civic discourse and broaden the community engagement. The political divisions in this deeply independent region remain and the conflict over issues that these Westerners care so much about are still part of the landscape, but citizens in this area have taken key steps to re-humanize each other in the face of their differences.

Watch The Fire Next Time on the PBS Video Player through February 18, 2010. Look closely at this town now — not just for the warning their conflicts present, but for what we can learn from them about how to take action to avoid the dangers of unchecked burning conflicts.

Related Reading: If you are interested in holding a community discussion or town hall in your town, you might find these materials helpful.

Principles for Civil Dialogue: Turning Strangers into Neighbors
Helpful guide for fostering productive and civil discussions about contentious issues. (PDF, Jan. 2007)

Daily Interlake Newspaper: Keeping the Civic Conversation Civil
In this guest editorial, Ned Cooney talks about the group he and other concerned Flathead community members formed, Flathead on the Move, and the work that his group has done to foster communication and understanding in the valley. (Feb. 18, 2007)

Q&A: Resolving Community Conflicts
Melinda Smith is a conflict resolution expert who has worked in Kalispell to help the residents of the Flathead Valley to come to an agreement. She says, “The situation in Kalispell mirrors many conflicts throughout the West.” (2005)

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