‘Factual America’ is the podcast taking on the biggest news stories from the states, through the lens of documentary film-makers.
It’s no secret that American popular culture has long dominated news channels across the world, sometimes more than the news in our own countries. Even in the past few months, we’ve seen the country deal with the mistreatment of pop icon Britney Spears, chart the demise of Donald Trump, broadcast a Royal exposé and forge onwards with Awards Shows and tons of new TV series to quell our boredom over lockdown.
But what about those of us who find all the news slightly overwhelming, or perhaps don’t get the American P.O.V. at all? This is where Matthew Sherwood’s ‘Factual America’ podcast steps in. Produced by Alamo Pictures, the podcast offers a unique look inside the American psyche, interviewing cultural experts and fellow docu-filmmakers as they cover the countries many, many hot topics. Your average episode may consist of investigating the rise of Billie Eilish, spotlighting McDonald’s Monopoly Fraud, spelling out the history of Miles Davis’ musical innovations or even exploring the disappearance of the Kentucky hillbilly. Nothing is off the cards, and everything is up for discussion.
“Understanding [America’s] global impact on our daily lives poses challenges in the wake of ‘fake news’,” explains Sherwood of the endeavour, which has just surpassed it’s 50th episode, “but with the help of documentary filmmaking, currently enjoying a resurgence, the search for truth and authentic stories can continue.”
We caught up with Sherwood below, and got to grips with his affinity for Texas, dealing with dodgy conspiracy theorists and who he dreams of getting on the mic next. Take a look…
Hey Factual America! How are you?
We’re great! We’ve had a great first year and have just released our 50th episode. We also feel quite fortunate as we know it has been a tough year for so many people. How are you?
How did you get into podcasting?
Factual America is produced by Alamo Pictures, which makes documentaries about America for international audiences. Alamo’s founder, Sebastian Sauerborn, has years of experience launching new ventures, and podcasts are a big part of his go-to-market strategy.
Our host, Matthew Sherwood, has an eclectic background that includes journalism and broadcasting and he’s always in search of a good story. That has naturally led him to documentaries and Alamo. It’s this quest for truth in a post-truth world that Matthew tries to curate every week on the podcast.
Why did you choose this as your medium?
In a “golden age” of documentaries, we were surprised to discover how few outlets exist – not to mention podcasts – which provide a forum for documentary filmmakers and their subjects. Podcasts are an exciting and accessible way to achieve this and we were able to build on Sebastian’s experience launching podcasts and Matthew’s broadcasting background.
One of your recent shows centred around Billie Eilish! What was the most fascinating thing you learnt about her?
That was a great episode, thanks largely to legendary director RJ Cutler, and of course an amazing subject like Billie Eilish! RJ had a number of fascinating insights but the most interesting one is that Billie Eilish is well on the road to becoming a great film director. And RJ should know!
Anything else about Billie Eilish? RJ must have some interesting insights that do not come out in the film?
We did touch on this. It’s interesting how the film has been released at the same time as the media storm surrounding Britney Spears. Matthew did wonder if the picture of familial unity in the film was a facade. RJ says it isn’t, and that Billie has surrounded herself with people who love and respect her while also still calling all of the shots. In short, Billie Eilish is the boss. Quite a different situation than Britney’s.
We also loved Uprooted – the journey of jazz dance. What is it about bringing these histories to light that speaks to you personally?
Glad to hear you loved it! So do we. It was a real sleeper but has proved to be one of our more popular episodes. It just shows that if you have a good story, the audience will come. Uprooted is also an example of a trend we are seeing at the moment in documentaries. Just when some of us thought all the stories had been told, we’re discovering that isn’t true and that we also need to come to a new understanding of the past. This is being helped by a new generation of filmmakers, one that is more diverse and brings new and exciting perspectives to the film world.
Are there any topics you wouldn’t cover on your podcast?
As long as the topic ties into documentary film and America, we’re game to talk about anything. That’s the point. Too many people are stuck in their media bubbles and echo chambers. What the world needs now is genuine dialogue. We’re trying to do our little part to make that happen.
Who’s been your best guest yet, and why?
That’s a very difficult question as we have had so many of them. May we give you two? In our most recent episode – our 50th! – we interviewed Tim O’Brien, probably one of America’s greatest living authors, who wrote The Things They Carried. He’s the subject of a documentary that has just been released and he was so gracious talking about his experiences in the Vietnam War, as a writer and as the older dad of a young family. May not sound too exciting, but the doc is touching and poignant while also a sometimes hilarious take on family life and the creative process.
The other one was award-winning director Sam Pollard of MLB/FBI, which has been short-listed for an Oscar. Spike Lee has described Sam as a “master filmmaker” and that comes through loud and clear in the episode. Then at the end, he and Matthew started talking about Donald Trump. This was January 5th and Sam finished by saying that Trump was “not going to go quietly”. Little did we know how prescient that comment was until the next day during the storming of the Capitol!
Speaking of which, what do you guys make of all the news happening in America over the last few months?
Another thing Matthew discussed with Sam Pollard was how did 2020 compare with other historic years and 1968 certainly comes to mind, with its demonstrations, race riots, assassinations, hardfought elections and controversial political figures. At times it feels like 2020 is a continuation of the culture wars that were fomented then. Regardless, America goes through these periodic convulsions, which we’ve discussed in several of the episodes. Sometimes they result in positive change and sometimes they don’t.
What have the reactions been like to your show thus far? Any conspiracy theorists in your DMs crying about the Bill Gates controlled micro-chip corona vaccine?
Haha. First of all, the feedback from the filmmakers has been overwhelmingly positive, which we are thrilled about. As the audience has grown, it is great to receive so many likes or DMs saying “great episode!”. With the popularity of the Billie Eilish episode, there have been some interesting comments to say the least, mostly trying to create some controversy about the programming at one particular broadcaster or confusing us with a political movement.
Who’d be your dream figure to interview (dead or alive)?
We’d love to interview the legendary Maysles brothers. They have both died, unfortunately, but every documentary filmmaker lists them as an influence. They are like Bob Dylan to the doc world. Many people know them for their languid cinema verite studies, but we forget that they actually filmed The Beatles first tour of America and directed and produced Gimme Shelter (1970), the film about the Rolling Stones’ 1969 tour that captures that waning days of the counterculture movement. We would love to hear what they have to say about the current “golden age” of documentary filmmaking.