Have you joined a club lately? Trivia nights and bowling leagues push us out of our comfort zones. However, do you do those activities with friends or by yourself? Robert Putnam, the famed author of Bowling Alone guesses you’re probably being less social than we expect. In fact, all of America has been for the past six decades. Directors Pete & Rebecca Davis bounce off Putnam’s book, using it as a basis to examine American’s willingness to join clubs and its effects on our culture. The playfully named feature, Join or Die, delivers its important information with a glossy sheen, ensuring a positive outlook on their worrying data.

Back in the 1970s, Italy created new governments for each of its regions. As a researcher, Putnam began to examine the phenomenons within each area, and eventually found civic engagement in clubs strengthened the resolve of the region. This idea soon evolved into a book – Making Democracy Work – which became a hit within academia. However, when he turned his attention to America, he found a worrying trend of decreasing participation in clubs. As American cynicism has increased, our willingness to engage in these groups has continued to decrease.

Join or Die SXSW Documentary Robert Putnam

Pete Davis takes the lead as the narrator throughout the film. This seems, in no small part, to stem from his pre-existing relationship with Putnam. After taking Putnam’s courses in college, Davis and his professor have stayed in touch. This also means that they have front-row access to see Putnam’s continued research. This wellspring of knowledge benefits Join or Die.

Davis & Davis frame the data in ways that are easy to digest. After all, the concept and calls to action are not difficult to understand. As we join clubs, we gain more social capital and find ways to connect with our local structures in productive ways. The upbeat and poppy display of the footage helps us retain the information, offsetting the worrying results. This could be seen as a bad idea, but at the same time, this is an easily fixable problem. This does not have to be a doom and gloom scenario like many issues facing the world today.

Join or Die SXSW Documentary Robert Putnam

Where Join or Die seems to get a little lost is in non-Putnam-focused sequences. The ideas are still important, and seeing a variety of participants joining clubs helps us identify options on the table. Yet at the same time, these stories are inherently less compelling. After all, they’ve already received the message, and have found fulfillment in these atmospheres. At a runtime of 99 minutes, these scenes do not feel extraneous, but when the movie overstays its welcome, it might have been wise to cut back on some of this material.

Join or Die makes a compelling argument and does so with style. Even for those of us who struggle in social situations, finding a group of like-minded people with similar interests is important. You may not want to hit the bowling lanes, but joining a film club, an e-sports team or a sewing class might spark joy. For Davis & Davis, they establish themselves as an upbeat documentary duo that can communicate important, complex ideas in easy-to-digest packaging. It will be curious to see what their next feature will look like.

Alan’s Rating: 6/10

What do you think of Join or Die? Let us know in the comments below! Catch Join or Die at SXSW 2023.

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