Redlands and the Inland Empire are among the cities showcased in HBO’s new documentary “Our Towns,” premiering on Tuesday, April 13.
The documentary is based on journalists James and Deborah Fallows' bestselling book “Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America.” In 2013, the duo traveled across the United States for the next five years, exploring the changes taking place across small-town America. The book was published in 2018 and is a New York Times bestseller.
“Our Towns” is the Redlands High graduate James’ 10th book and the first he co-authored with his wife. James, who has been a reporter for the Atlantic since the 1970s, said the journey to a documentary was easier than expected.
“For the five years before filming, my wife and I traveled to almost 50 small towns while writing about it for the Atlantic and our book,” said James. “HBO approached us before the book was published. They saw an early draft of it and asked to buy the rights, so we made a deal almost three years ago. We did most filming in 2018 and 2019, with HBO’s Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan, then did post-production early last year. The film crew obviously couldn’t go to all 50 towns, so for the film, we focused on a geographical mix of cities based on themes and physical looks.”
The documentary focuses on eight cities in six different regions, including Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Columbus, Mississippi; Eastport, Maine; Charleston, West Virginia; Bend, Oregon; and Redlands.
“We wanted to come up with the right mix of places,” said James. “Mississippi looks different from Maine. Sioux Falls looks different from Redlands. Our film partners worked to come up with a combination of cities.”
Though different, Fallows said the towns share a commonality.
“The common thing in a lot of these places is the outside world hasn’t paid enough attention to them,” he said. “Everyone from Los Angeles has driven through the Inland Empire on the way to Palm Springs, but not as many people know about it. We wanted to show the ways communities go through ups and downs. The main theme of the film is the way communities respond to disruption or problems. Every place has been through some sort of challenge. For example, San Bernardino has dealt with economic and political dislocation. The similarity among these towns is that they all showed adaptability and resilience in the face of a challenge. The Inland Empire angle is there is drama playing out in a place the outside world hasn’t paid attention to, unlike San Francisco.”
The film introduces viewers to a wide range of civic leaders, immigrants, educators, environmentalists, artists and students witnessing their love for their communities and the innovative ways they are improving them. It provides an expansive perspective on America that finds unexpected connections between personal stories, community actions and the arc of history.
“The main thing I hope viewers learn and the reason the film is well-timed is despite all of the friction and polarization at the national level, there is a tremendous amount of local adaptability and innovation,” said Fallows. “In all of these towns, there was a sense of practicality and humanity when dealing with economic trouble. Now that the country is responding and hopefully coming out of an economic disaster, I hope the film is an illustration of how we can adapt.”