What does it mean to be American? That was the question over 6,000 students attempted to answer through a short film in the 2019 C-SPAN StudentCam competition.
The Daily Signal spoke with Eli Scott and Mason Daugherty, the grand-prize winners of the competition, to find out how they defined what it means to be American, and what they learned as they spoke with political leaders and policy experts across the aisle.
Virginia Allen: I am joined on The Daily Signal Podcast by Eli Scott and Mason Daugherty, the 2019 grand-prize winners of the C-SPAN student film competition. Eli and Mason are rising seniors at Imagine International Academy of North Texas in McKinney, Texas. Eli and Mason, thank you all for joining me today.
Mason Daugherty: Thank you for having us, Virginia.
Eli Scott: Yeah, thanks for having us on.
Allen: This year C-SPAN received nearly 3,000 documentary submissions from over 6,300 students from all over the country. And all these documentaries had to answer the question “What does it mean to be American?“
Eli and Mason, your film won the grand prize. Congratulations to both of you.
Daugherty: Thank you.
Allen: Now, how did you all answer that question of what does it mean to be American?
Daugherty: We really started at a position where we wanted to find something that people wouldn’t typically think about when it comes to being an American.
I mean, we’ve got the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. We have all of our founding documents. We have the ideals of the Founding Fathers that remain with us, but we wanted to take it into a direction that has existed from then and existed until now.
We found that to be holding your government accountable and the responsibility in the role of citizens in preserving our democratic republic. That’s how we got there.
Scott: Holding your government accountable is a truly unique American aspect and not many other people around the world can claim to enjoy that freedom and privilege.
Although it’s a little bit unconventional, I think it honestly is one of the most important ones and withholding our integrity and structure as a society.
Allen: Yeah, absolutely. How did you answer that question of as American people, how do we go about holding the government accountable?
Daugherty: What we agreed on and what we learned from speaking with numerous people from different political leanings is that it starts at a local level and a state level, and then onto a federal level.
It is so easy and almost effortless to be active in your local community on a political level. At your city council, you can pretty easily get a meeting with your mayor. If you live in a small town, medium-sized city, and they’re the people who listen to you, they’re the people that you can talk to and suggest maybe policy, anything like that. And you’ll see those changes in your daily life on state and federal issues.
You can hold them accountable, you can elect who you want to be in power, you can communicate your views by voting, but it’s a lot easier to do that on a local level. And that’s where it all comes from.
Scott: I think it’s a common misconception among the general public … we see on the news Trump, Trump, Trump, executive, executive, executive, Congress, and then that becomes ingrained into their heads and you begin to think of it as a distant kind of goal to where only the privileged and people with money can attain that.
Reverse engineer it. Who actually consents to those? What’s impacting you directly? It’s not those people that necessarily while, yes, they can …
The biggest impacts you’ll see on your day-to-day life are coming from the people who might live in the same neighborhood as you. Once you’re able to realize that and put into action specific goals you can collectivize with people who you live around, be nice to one’s neighbor.
So, starting at a much lower level is one of the common themes that we found to be the most significant impact to you as an American citizen.
Daugherty: One more thing, it was a completely bipartisan issue of holding your governor accountable, fighting corruption. We spoke with people from more progressive grassroots organizations … Then, of course The Heritage Foundation, libertarian legal scholars, and everybody had different interpretations about how to hold one one’s government accountable, but it’s something that really tied everyone together.
I think that really showed in the final cut of the video. It’s something that pulls everyone together no matter what your political leaning is.
Allen: Can you share a little bit about the process of actually making the film? I know you both put so much work into this project. Did you have a favorite part? Was there something especially challenging that stands out in your mind?
Daugherty: Of course. My background is in freelance video production for companies and people in my community. This is what I love to do on a daily basis, and when we were approached with this opportunity, I said, “Yes. Let’s do this.” Although, I had never really shot a formal documentary that you think of when you see on like “Dateline.”
There was a lot of learning. We both collaborated quite significantly. Eli, more so on the people PR, anything scheduled. And then my focus remained on how do we communicate what we’re talking about in the best way possible to the people who will be watching it?
It was a very dynamic relationship and I think that was what made it stronger is that we can each specialize on our own areas and make things go a lot more smoothly so that the quality at the end would be higher.
I think the hardest part, and then we didn’t realize this initially, was just how long it would take to edit and how many possibilities we would have and different directions that we could have taken it in.
In the end, that would have conveyed widely different messages. We spent a good month in the editing room, last December, trying to finalize it and turn out the final copy, the “final copy” that we were happy with.
Scott: Absolutely. I think the collaboration aspect is what really made the video how it is. We’re both passionate about our own things. you’re more visually creative and that really showed.
It was a wonderfully made, wonderfully executed video and being a really big fan of debate in history and politics, I was able to really search and research things and speak with people that I’d been wanting to speak with for years and really delve into the whole issue of corruption and government accountability firsthand, whether it was special-interest groups, it was professor Randy Barnett at Georgetown Law, or anybody of that sort.
It was a really interesting thing to undertake and the collaboration really shown through.
Allen: You are both rising seniors in high school. Where did this interest in politics and, specifically, conservative policy come from at your young age?
Daugherty: We’ve been both in same grade and that same school for a while now and through connection and friendship, we were both involved in our school’s Youth and Government and we have a fabulous history teacher, Ms. Presley. If you’re out there, thank you.
It kind of nurtured our interests and I think it’s just kind of in us, as a commonality that we’ve had. We’ve been able to engage in certain debates and conversations over things and that’s kind of how we call it. Do you want to add to that?
Scott: Yeah. The wonderful thing about Mason was that we’re always debating, even arguing sometimes, about ideas politically, even though we’re kind of on the same side of the spectrum. We have that ability to disagree with each other and still get along.
I think that’s wonderful and that’s what the more conservative side kind of champions. You can have disagreements with each other and get along and not fight and that’s sort of something that’s been catalyzed through Youth and Government through other extracurricular activities.
Even growing up in Texas has probably had a lot of an influence on it, but really seeing what the conservatives, the Republicans are doing in Washington currently and what they’ve done in the past.
It’s been a really interesting thing to live through and it’s had a big influence on my views on politics and I think a lot of other people in our generation, and I think it’s going to continue to grow as people go into college and our generation and it’s going end up pretty, pretty cool.
Allen: You did so much traveling as you made this film and you came to D.C. and you did interviews at The Heritage Foundation and on the hill. What was maybe one or two surprising takeaways as you were meeting with these various leaders from across the aisle?
Daugherty: One of the most common things I found on both the local and federal level is how nonpartisan of a topic this is. There’s some deep accordance to be had with that.
Scott: Yeah, we saw, no matter who we interviewed, there were things that tied us all together—young Americans, old Americans, conservatives, liberals—and that was wonderful. I mean, scholars, people at special-interest groups, or grassroots organizations. It was really wonderful to see and I think that really kind of showed in the video and the final cut just how nonpartisan of an issue it was.
Allen: I watched the film. It’s excellent, so strong. You all did an amazing job making it. How has it been received by your peers?
Daugherty: I’d say well. I think I confused them a little bit because, traditionally, in class and outside of school, we’re usually associated with a bit more conservative-leaning values, but the way we tried to present this video was that this isn’t a partisan issue. This is something that everybody needs to be concerned about and that unites us all.
I have people, extended family who watched it, who I’m not as close to, but they were legitimately wondering what direction we were going with. The fact that we were able to trip up even some of the closest people that we know and make them question, “What is this truly?” And so that was a really surprising reaction we had.
Scott: Yeah. The impressive thing is that I think a lot of people had different takeaways from the video.
The more progressive, more liberal people that saw the video and commented on it basically said, “Well, good job communicating more progressive values and stuff.”
They were impressed that, as Texans, we kind of took that on and then, maybe a teacher or a family member who was more conservative, really took away the issues of suspicion of power or limiting the power of the federal government.
Everyone took something away from it. Even the peers.
We have a very diverse class of people everywhere in the political spectrum and everyone really had their own takeaways and there were no real negative comments. Nobody was offended by the video. That was really cool because there are a lot of other ways, as Mason said, that we could have cut the video up, extended it, added more clips in where it could be extremely partisan based on what people said, how we edited it.
Daugherty: Beyond the politics side of it, people, [who may have not been as familiar with the topics we discussed] really enjoyed having a way … to kind of connect the dots in their own heads.
I think that’s what’s so special about the video is we’re able to present maybe more a complex topic but presented it in such a way that anybody who wants to can become familiar and engaged with it and learn something that they had not known beforehand.
Allen: What is next for you guys? Do you want to keep making more films? Are you hoping to continue to be involved in political thought and debate?
Daugherty: Well, C-SPAN is hosting the 2020 StudentCam competition. With the election coming up, it’s very tempting to … we can both vote this election and so, I think there’s just as much potential this time around.
What do you think, Eli?
Scott: I absolutely agree with that because the topic revolves on issues that we would like the candidates in 2022 to examine or bring as part of their campaign and I think that this gives us an opportunity to communicate to potential voters, people in our generation, anybody who views the video. That’s going to be what the power is.
So, I agree. It’s very tempting to do that. Besides that, I think some future steps, future goals would be to keep filmmaking as a medium that we always use to express whatever we’re interested in. Politics is one of the biggest things. Debating, having open discussions, freedoms, freedom of speech.
It’s all really good things that can be communicated through video really well. And it broadens the audience of politics as a whole, especially with young filmmakers kind of putting out that content.
Daugherty: Definitely. Just beyond the competition, filmmaking is something that I live and breathe and it’s a lot of fun, honestly, to have so much work put into a project.
I will continue to hopefully do passion projects, [that are] not necessarily bound by any sort of guidelines, but that I can manifest what it is that I might be feeling or an issue that pops up in a community or something I just want to highlight and help get more attention to.
Beyond that, in terms of career, I’m a little bit unsure currently, though I know wherever I go, filmmaking will be an integral part of it and a powerful medium of doing so.
Allen: Well, I look forward to seeing future films by you guys. Where can the film be found?
Scott: Definitely. Anybody who’s interested in seeing the film can go to studentcam.org. We’re located on the past winners page for the 2019 competition.
Allen: That’s great. Mason and Eli, thank you.
Daugherty: Thank you.
Scott: Yes. Thanks again, Virginia. It’s been a pleasure.