If you know anything about my story, then you likely already suspect that I'm a fan of the feature documentary State of the Unity, an official selection of the 31st Annual Heartland International Film Festival this week in my hometown of Indianapolis. As a longtime activist for children who spent 30+ years of my life traveling over 6,000 miles by wheelchair, I'm a sucker for stories about those who hit the road by foot, car, bike, or wheelchair in the name of making the world a better place.
Such is the case with husband-and-wife duo Nathaniel Paul Hoff and Jillian Speece, who perform together as a band under the name The Bergamot and whose story of an inspired road trip serves as the subject matter for this 88-minute documentary that they also co-directed. On January 2, 2016, Hoff and Speece set out to tour all 50 states of the United States because, well, things weren't looking all that united. Their mission was to spread a message of unity through performing 265 shows and by inviting the curious to sign their message of unity on their station wagon known as The Unity Car.
It would be reasonable to expect that the film that came out of their journey is an inspirational one, a feel-good work of wonder that hits all the right warm and fuzzy notes. Indeed, State of the Unity offers an abundance of empathy and compassion during a season in America when it has seemed like such things are hard to come by. However, what I also appreciated about State of the Unity is its honesty, an honesty I search for as one who is incredibly aware of the hazards and pitfalls of life on the road. By the time the tour wound down in October 2016, Hoff and Speece had experienced break-ins, breakdowns, homelessness, haters, and financial instability in pursuit of unity.
Yet, here they are.
State of the Unity is now a multiple award-winning documentary having picked up prizes at Sedona International Film Festival (Marion Hermann Excellence in Filmmaking Award), Richmond International Film Festival (2022 Artistic Pioneer Award), Paris Independent Film Festival (Best Documentary Feature) and more.
Hoff and Speece met at Marian High School in South Bend, Indiana in 2003 and started their career in 2010 after completing their time as NCAA Division I athletes and graduating from Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. The indie/folk-rock duo are no slouches when it comes to music. They've opened for X-Ambassadors, Gavin Degraw, Young the Giant, and even OneRepublic.
In fact, the duo returned to Indiana as their epic tour closed for a benefit concert at Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend with funds raised for the Music Therapy Department at Memorial Children's Hospital. By mid-2017, they also auctioned off "The Unity Car" on EBay and donated 100% of the proceeds also to the Music Therapy Department at Memorial Children's Hospital.
State of the Unity is a feel good film for sure, though it's a hard-earned feel good grounded deeply within the kind or rich life experiences one gets by taking big risks in the name of making the world a better place. Both Hoff and Speece have shared that the journey challenged their perceptions and preconceived notions of what unity really was and that by listening to real American people of all walks of life and across the political spectrum they were able to form a new vision of a shared future where everyone could have a seat at the table.
While the state of the unity may not be exactly where we'd like it to be these days, with folks like Nathaniel Paul Hoff and Jillian Speece making music and building a bigger table so everyone has a seat there's still an awful lot of hope.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic