Alumni Profile: Jonathan Goodman Levitt

Alumni Profile: Jonathan Goodman Levitt

“The idea that ‘film is an empathy machine,’ while somewhat cliched, is true. It’s the closest we can come to meeting people in real life and experiencing them in-person,” says award-winning documentary filmmaker Jonathan Goodman Levitt. Levitt received a Fulbright grant in 1999, and went to the UK’s National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England, to study filmmaking. Inspired by the documentary styles he was immersed in during his time abroad, which were less entertainment-driven than what was popular in America, Levitt describes his work today as “non-judgmental.” He employs artistic choices that leave viewers more room to form their own opinions. “Films are obviously subjective and the result of countless choices,” said Levitt. “But I strive to portray film participants fairly, such that they feel they’ve been given time within the films to share their own narratives and the best versions of their own arguments.”

Levitt eats with participants on a shoot break while filming “Sunny Intervals and Showers” during his Fulbright year

While completing his master’s degree in social psychology at Stanford University, Levitt decided he wanted to make a career out of his long-time passion for filmmaking. He applied for a Fulbright to the UK given his affinity for documentaries that more frequently observe rather than preach, for which there was more institutional support in the UK and Europe at the time. Levitt’s Fulbright project allowed him to make short films, and to develop his first feature documentary, which built on case study research on Bipolar Disorder he’d conducted in Oxford in 1997. For nearly a decade, Levitt stayed in the UK, working on a variety of projects while largely self-financing Sunny Intervals and Showers, which premiered in 2003 and was later acquired for broadcast by BBC.

Upon moving back to the U.S. in 2008, Levitt built his own media production company as a vehicle for his social impact documentaries. He named it Changeworx to reflect his vision that it would be a machine that literally works to create the change he wishes to see in the world. Changeworx’s primary projects are longitudinal-observational films that follow and portray his subjects’ lives as they unfold over multiple years. Changeworx films have received numerous awards and accolades — including nominations for Emmy, Independent Spirit, and Grierson awards — and have been supported by Sundance Institute, Tribeca Film Institute, and Ford Foundation.

Q&A Session at a screening of "Follow the Leader"

Levitt fields questions at a screening of “Follow the Leader”

One of Levitt’s most popular works, Follow the Leader, was the only documentary to premiere in Tampa and Charlotte during both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in 2012. Following three conservative American teens who grew up in the wake of 9/11, Follow the Leader is a coming-of-age story that portrays the formation of their political beliefs, their everyday lives, and their shared aspiration to one day ascend to the U.S. presidency. “People on the left, right, and center were interested in the film for different reasons,” says Levitt about the experience of witnessing reactions to the film from across the political spectrum. “People would partially get what they came to the film for, but they’d also come away with unexpected insights. Progressives often developed more empathy for conservatives, and conservatives would sometimes question their own beliefs after seeing similar reconsideration modeled within the film.”

Levitt with Senator Cory Booker at the 2012 Democratic Convention

Changeworx’s latest film, the Emmy-nominated documentary Among the Believers, presents a nuanced investigation into the root causes behind the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. “Many Americans think about terrorism as a problem that pits ‘us’ against ‘them,’ as Islam vs. the West, which is deeply flawed on multiple levels,” says Levitt, who sought to deepen his and others understandings through Among the Believers, a non-traditional film that follows a Pakistani cleric named Abdul Aziz Ghazi who is a vocal ISIS supporter and Taliban ally. In collaboration with an Indian partner and Pakistani team on the ground, the production accessed locations where Americans could not go, and the Netflix film offers audiences a humanizing peek into Ghazi and two of his students’ everyday lives. “Nearly nine years ago now, I became interested in this project because of my continuing belief that we haven’t had the conversations that I feel we should’ve had in the wake of 9/11 about the origins of Islamic fundamentalism, and the questions surrounding our own complicity in its growth,” says Levitt. “Americans in particular need to understand that people are often caught between harsh choices of poverty and extremism, that a lack of educational opportunities lies at the root of the issue, that Muslims themselves have been the greatest victims of terrorism — and that it’s most often other Muslims who are fighting back and making the greatest sacrifices.”

Levitt filming at President Barack Obama’s 2008 Inauguration

Stemming from his conviction that international exchange truly works to increase positive feelings among people from around the world, Levitt has been an actively involved board member of the Fulbright Association’s Greater New York Chapter. He worked to establish the chapter’s Fulbright Film Series, in partnership with Alamo Drafthouse, as a showcase for films made by Fulbrighters that relate to the Fulbright program’s mission. The series also gives his fellow Fulbrighters a place to share their work, and is a platform through which Levitt and colleagues are sparking conversations about the diverse range of subjects covered in their films.

“Like many of us who have the opportunity to live abroad, my Fulbright experience opened my mind to my own culture and helped me to explore what about my attitudes and behavior was cultural, what was my personality, and what was perhaps human nature,” Levitt shares. His own recent projects are reflective of his efforts to spread this sense of inter- and intra-cultural self-awareness. Working with a yet-to-be-announced Collective of other acclaimed filmmakers, he’s developing a series of films to address our present political climate in a non-reactionary way, to encourage dialogue among Americans who disagree.

Likewise, Levitt is working on a platform at the intersection of educational and civic technology called Reality Check, which he hopes will become a 21st century model for using film in high school and college classrooms. In an effort to get students to engage in constructive dialogue with the various opinions and convictions of others, Reality Check re-versions feature films into what he calls “episodic presentations.” Film episodes alternate with interactive content, during which audience members are invited to respond to the ideas and social issues raised by the films. To sustain his longer-term projects, Levitt also creates films and video content for clients (such as the National Endowment for Democracy, Christie’s, Sustained Dialogue Institute, and jazz legend Marcus Miller), and would welcome the chance to work with other Fulbrighters to promote their own work and organizations.

—Noor Dabbas

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