‘Join or Die,’ to be shown at NJ Film Festival, explores the importance of social connections


Robert Putnam, being interviewed in the documentary “Join or Die.”

You may not be familiar with the term “social capital.” But if you watch “Join or Die” — the eye-opening documentary that will be shown at The New Jersey Film Festival in New Brunswick on Feb. 10, and will be available through the festival, online — you may come to see this concept as essential to understanding modern life.

That is a big claim, I know. But “Join or Die” has a big impact.

“Join or Die” — co-directed and co-produced by Rebecca Davis and her brother, Pete Davis — focuses on the life and work of the now-retired Harvard professor Robert Putnam, who didn’t invent the term social capital but brought attention to it with a 1995 article, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” which he expanded into the 2000 book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” In them, he argued that the sharp decline in social capital — basically, the social networks that are part of a person’s life — in the United States was having disastrous consequences.

The bowling thing (people used to bowl in clubs or leagues; increasingly, though, in modern American society, they didn’t) was just one example. People also have become less likely to join civic associations, religious or recreational groups, PTAs, unions, etc.

This may not seem like a big deal, but Putnam argues that it is: That, according to his research, there is a direct correlation between civic engagement and the health of a society. That the decline in social capital that we have seen in the United States since, more or less, the 1950s, represents — as Pete Davis, a former student of Putnam’s, puts it, in his narration — nothing less than “the collapse of American community.” Or, conversely, that social capital is what makes democracy work.

“This is a film about why you should join a club, and why the fate of America depends on it,” Pete Davis boldly declares.

The cover of Robert Putnam’s 2000 book, “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

In various clips shown in the documentary, Putnam says he has found, via his research, that having 10 percent more people know their neighbor’s first name is a more effective way to cut crime than having 10 percent more cops on the beat; that the effectiveness of a school is more influenced by parent involvement than budgets; and that your chances of dying over the next year are cut in half by joining one group.

As the documentary shows, Putnam created an initiative, The Saguaro Seminar, to try to boost civic engagement. And in his 2020 book, “The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again,” he took a look at a time in American history when there was more social capital, and what we can learn from that.

The filmmakers spend a lot of time with the amiable, articulate Putnam throughout the documentary — we get, basically, his life story, as well as a deep dive into his work — but also interview Hillary Clinton, Pete Buttigieg, New York Times columnist David Brooks and a variety of other politicians, academics and writers. They also talk with a community activist in Atlanta, the leader of a farm-based ministry in Rockford, Mich., and members of a fraternal lodge in Waxahachie, Texas, and a bowling league in Portland, Maine, among others, to provide a sense of what people are still getting from being members of groups.

The conversational tone of the narration, Chad Cannon’s cheerful backing music and Mark Lopez’s quirky, low-tech animation add to the home-spun, unpretentious charm of a film that, despite its unassuming trappings, has a very serious and important message.

“Join or Die” will be shown at The New Jersey Film Festival at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. It will also be available online all day on Feb. 10. Visit newjerseyfilmfestivalspring2024.eventive.org.

For more on the film, visit putnamdoc.com. Here is the trailer:


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