How documentary filmmaker Susan Polis Schutz found hope in a divided world

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2min 33sec
David Maung
People pass a tamale through the U.S.-Mexico border fence during Fandango Fronterizo.

Boulder-based documentary filmmaker Susan Polis Schutz found inspiration for her ninth film, “Bridging Divides: Sharing Heartbeats,” as she was struggling to digest what felt like a constant stream of negative news. 

"I was very depressed over the news, all the divisiveness and the hatred, the meanness," Polis Schutz recalled. "And just at that time, I read a story about Fandango Fronterizo."

The annual Fandango Fronterizo is a cross-border jam session organized by retired librarian Jorge Francisco Castillo. Participants gather on both sides of the wall between Tijuana and San Diego. As one of the singers told Polis Schutz, "The high wall is there, but when we play music, it just disappears."

Polis Schutz was so moved by this powerful display of unity that she began searching for more groups using art, sports and dialogue to bridge divides.

"I decided maybe I could do a film and maybe there are more groups like that," she said. "And during my research, I found hundreds of groups trying to bridge divides."

The resulting documentary, "Bridging Divides: Sharing Heartbeats," highlights six of these inspiring initiatives, from the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, a music and dialogue program for Palestinian and Israeli youth to the Tri-Faith Initiative, which promotes interfaith cooperation on one Omaha, Nebraska, campus.

In the film's opening section, musician Nydia Algazzali Gonzalez talks about the power of Fandango Fronterizo to create a sense of welcome at a place — the U.S.-Mexico border — that is not accepting or welcoming to everyone.

“To bring that oneness and connectivity to the wall, that I think is the significance,” she said. “To show that the wall may be there, but this cultural connection, this artistic experience — this connects us and we can't be separated.”

Elsewhere in the film, Gareth Harper, managing director of Peace Players, which uses sports to bring together Catholic and Protestant youth in Northern Ireland, expands on the idea that joyful activities can help people work on hard issues. "The kids aren't just playing basketball together. This program intentionally tackles the issues that continue to be divisive here."

IronZeal Films

The film also introduces viewers to the Chicago Children’s Choir (now Uniting Voices Chicago) which brings together youth from diverse backgrounds to become global leaders through music and the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, which embraces the power of Muslim and Jewish sisterhood to spark sustainable social change.

Polis Schultz has been making documentaries for around 15 years, starting with the film that captured the coming out stories of gays and lesbians and their parents. That’s something she has a personal tie to, as the mother of Gov. Jared Polis, Colorado’s first openly gay governor. Her films since have explored topics like anxiety and depression, resiliency and life after 90. 

For Polis Schutz, showcasing these uplifting stories was a way to promote hope and optimism in a world often marred by conflict.

"I was seriously sad about the world. I still am, but these people gave me hope," she said. "If these people could do it, I think with hard work, the good ideals of people can be expanded, and I really think it's a way to get back respect and understanding of each other."

"Bridging Divides: Sharing Heartbeats," presented by KPBS San Diego, began streaming on and the PBS App on April 1. 

It premieres locally on Rocky Mountain PBS Wednesday, April 17, with encore presentations on the WORLD channel through April 24.