Kim A. Snyder's “Welcome to Shelbyville” is a melting-pot movie, asimmer with social issues: immigration, racism, unemployment, intolerance. Its examination of the clash between Somali Muslims and rural Tennesseeans does not sugarcoat the kinds of conflicts that have bedeviled the country for centuries; it questions, in its way, what America means. And it’s been shown around the world by the United States State Department.
Propaganda is not what it used to be. As it enters its third round of bringing nonfiction American films to underserved foreign audiences, the American Documentary Showcase, a project of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, has been full of surprises — some for the audiences, some for the filmmakers.
“I was shocked when they picked ‘Street Fight,’ ” said the director Marshall Curry, whose 2005 film recounts the hard-fought 2002 mayoral contest in Newark between the entrenched Sharpe James and the unknown Cory Booker. “I thought: ‘How did this happen? Who’s going to be fired when they finally see this list?’ ”
It’s a list that in 2010 included “Which Way Home,” Rebecca Cammisa’s tale of freight-train-hopping children smuggling themselves into the United States; Michael Tucker and Petra Eperlein’s “How to Fold a Flag,” about the American government’s neglect of Iraq War vets; and David Novack’s “Burning the Future: Coal in America,” about open-pit mining in Appalachia.
Not every film is so obviously weighty. “No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos” is the story of the émigré cinematographers Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, who helped revolutionize Hollywood’s visual aesthetics. But when James Chressanthis, the film’s director, took it to Russia, and viewers there learned that both subjects had fled the Hungarian revolution of 1956, it provided a certain wake-up call. “As one kid told me, ‘We didn’t learn this in school,’ ” Mr. Chressanthis recalled.
When Ms. Snyder visited Nigeria (filmmakers are usually “deployed” to one location, while their films can travel elsewhere), she did a radio show, where the host asked, “How do you ensure that your film’s morals are up to standards?”
She said: “Basically it was a censorship question. I had to think about it, and answer carefully. I didn’t use the word ‘censorship,’ but I said, ‘Well, as independent filmmakers we don’t go through that process.’ I might have said, ‘We have freedom of speech.’ I mean, we’re talking about really fundamental stuff here. It was his assumption that there must be a body that determines what’s morally and ethically sound. As cynical as you might be, you walk away thinking, ‘We’re pretty damn lucky.’ ”
Which is precisely the point. The showcase might go about airing our dirty linen in the world’s backyard, so to speak, but the subtext is American freedom of expression. The strategy epitomizes the co-option/attraction technique of the kind of “soft diplomacy” embraced even during the late innings of the Bush administration. (The first showcase grant, for $400,000, were made in 2008, although its first slate of films toured in 2009; the program is currently budgeted at $600,000.)
According to the State Department the showcase epitomizes Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s devotion to “smart power,” or the pursuit of foreign-policy goals via whatever tools one has at hand, including the arts. The program — an echo of cold war efforts like Radio Free Europe, which courted Soviet satellite nations with American culture — is a more subtle strategy than one might ordinarily credit to a monolithic entity like the State Department. But “occasionally government bureaucracy can do something right,” Maura Pally, deputy assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, said with a laugh.
The engagement has had payoffs. “We’re actually changing lives out there,” said Betsy McLane, the project director for the showcase and a former president of the University Film & Video Association, which administers the program for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. She said that when “Through Deaf Eyes (pictured),” a film about the history of being deaf in the United States, was shown in Ecuador in 2009, “the deaf audience said: Oh my gosh, we can form an organization, create schools for our deaf, we can be empowered, look at the example in that film. And they did.” Some reactions reflect a kind of enlightenment. “When I took ‘Street Fight’ to Israel,” Mr. Curry said of his film, about warring black politicians, “we showed it at a Jewish film school, and afterwards a couple of students came up and said. ‘You know, the whole conflict in the United States between African-Americans is so similar to the conflict we have between the Ashkenazi and the Sephardic.’ So here’s this story that seems to be very specific to the United States, and Newark, and people are seeing it and relating it to their own systems.” He laughed. “There’s no community so small it can’t be cut in half and hate each other.”
But there’s also nothing like film, Ms. Pally said, “to instigate dialogue and start conversations that people wouldn’t be comfortable having in another situation.” Toward that end each showcase delegation includes a filmmaker and one or two film authorities who are supposed to expand on the films being shown.
Being put in the position of national spokesman is not something the filmmakers have had to worry about, nor have they been censored by the State Department. When Ms. Cammisa was planning to go to Honduras with “Which Way Home” (her field producer, Sasha Weiss, ultimately went in her place), she said, the Arizona immigrant-identification law had just been passed. “I said to them, ‘Look, the question we’re going to get from all the people is about the Arizona law, and we’re going to have speak freely about it,’ and they were O.K. with that. They didn’t censor us at all. It was great.”
Mr. Chressanthis, who is a visual artist as well as a filmmaker, will be returning soon to Vladivostok, where he showed “Laszlo & Vilmos.” “I’m as critical as the next person of the government,” he said. “But as I told the audiences there, of course these films are critical. But that’s what it means to have a democracy. I said quite directly to them that the strength of a democracy is its ability to absorb such criticism. If your system can’t absorb this criticism, it’s not a democracy.”
Sunday, January 16, 2011
The NY Times:
Posted by BA Haller at 12:13 PM