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Photos Courtesy of UPF and Wikimedia Commons

I recently visited with Daniel Tutt of 20,000 Dialogues, an organization dedicated to building community through neighbors watching movies together.  Much of the negative reaction we have to events comes through the media; it is much more engaging and entertaining for media producers and outlets to define religion and politics, for example, through exciting images and sound bites.  This type of information presentation, produced for high impact emotional response and not serious intellectual engagement, can lead quickly to distorted views for those who don’t take the energy to actively inform themselves regarding current events, belief systems, and how people represented actually behave.  Without necessary context, commercial media presentation often leaves viewers with less than accurate perspectives of religious history and belief systems.  This has been particularly harmful for spiritual movements in many American neighborhoods, where the liberty to worship should apply to all, but now has to be defended by those unlucky enough to have poor media representation.

Five decades ago President Kennedy and his Catholic faith were under attack; over the years many faiths have fallen victim to harsh misrepresentation, and the current subject of many of these skewed depictions is Islam.  Daniel Tutt is the Outreach Director for 20,000 Dialogues; they are using what could easily be a weapon–the media–to actively inform, contextualize information, and ultimately strengthen communities.  Their mission is not to proselyte, but to aid neighbors to see each other as people, and support each other in their differences.  Daniel was nice enough to take the time to answer some questions about 20,000 Dialogues, its parent UPF, and describe his hopes as they continue forward.

1.         What is UPF, and what motivated its creation?

Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) is a nonprofit organization that aims to create peace through the media.  UPF produces documentary films for both television broadcast, online viewing, and theatrical release, and implements long-term educational campaigns aimed at increasing understanding between people of different faiths and cultures, especially between Muslims and other faiths.

UPF was born in 1999 by Michael Wolfe and Alex Kronemer out of their collaborative work on the two-hour television documentary Muhammed:  Legacy of a Prophet that aired on PBS and National Geographic International in 2002, which the two co-created, co-produced, and co-executive edited.

2.         What are your motivations as a filmmaker, and why have you created films around these particular subjects?

Films always spark discussion.  Everyone has an opinion about a film and no one needs to be an expert to join in.  Watching a film and discussing it is a common yet powerful experience, a practical, meaningful way of helping people share ideas and build new perspectives.  Since Islam had for a long time been a subject of both interest and great misunderstanding within the American public, Alex and Michael (who are both Muslims) hoped they could use the power of film to change misconceptions about Islam and help people understand who Muslims are in a wider social and historical context.

3.         What is the relationship between UPF and 20,000 Dialogues?

20,000 Dialogues is a nationwide initiative that uses UPF films to promote pluralism, dialogue, and civic engagement. It seeks to build greater understanding of Muslims through films and conversation. The idea of 20,000 Dialogues started after the release of UPF’s first film, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. People around the world viewed and discussed the film in their efforts to understand Muslims and build relationships after 9/11. The 20,000 Dialogues initiative was launched in August 2007 with the national PBS broadcast of UPF’s Cities of Light and the endorsement of the World Economic Forum’s Top 100 Council of Religious Leaders. It has subsequently been supported with grants from the Proteus Fund, the National Endowment for the Humanities, U.S. Institute of Peace, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, One Nation, a special project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and other institutions and individuals.

4.         Why was 20,000 Dialogues necessary?

The lack of familiarity with Muslims undermines the quality of civic life for all Americans.  By enabling people to watch and discuss film about Muslims, 20,000 Dialogues has been able to build relationships across faiths and cultures, even at a time when current events cause tension.

5.         What did you hope to do with 20,000 Dialogues, and is it meeting your expectations?

Our hope with 20,000 Dialogues was to create a “ripple effect” whereby our screening events and living room dialogues, as well as the sharing of the project through social media, inspire people to hold their own dialogues using UPF films and supporting materials nationwide. We want these dialogues happening all the time, in big cities and small towns, and the goal we set for ourselves is to reach 20,000 of them (hence the name). The fact that we have now reached that number and we’re still going strong attests to the fact that the initiative is indeed meeting our expectations above and beyond.

6.         Could you share some specific effects 20,000 Dialogues has had, on a personal scale and on a neighborhood scale?

Since the launch of 20,000 Dialogues in August 2007, over 800 organizations and over 30 national partners have hosted or participated in community and living room dialogues, bringing together over 100,000 people in personal dialogue at civic venues and in households.

Our Evaluation Method Documents Participants’ Shift in Attitude:

We measure changes in participants’ understanding – beyond the headlines – of Muslim history, culture, and peoples.  After researching how the popular media portrays Muslims, we identified key areas of misunderstanding.  We measure participants’ attitudes in these key areas before and after they watch and discuss a film, and have shown a substantial shift in understanding as a result of the 20,000 Dialogues experience.

7.         What is your personal hope for 20,000 Dialogues and its participants?

Films will always spark discussion. Everyone has an opinion to share about a film and no one needs to be an expert. The films used in 20,000 Dialogues are ideal because they get people talking about Islam and its connection to the Abrahamic tradition. Our hope is that people of diverse backgrounds use these films to talk to each other, and realize that despite our differences, we need to build bridges of understanding.

Two of the many movies to view are Cities of Light:The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain and Islamic Art:Mirror of the Invisible World, as well as another UPF site, My Fellow American