Skip to main content

Voices of America: Film Showcase Gears up for Year Two

By Tom White

Cultural diplomacy has served as a vital component of the US Department of State's overall foreign policy apparatus for the past 50 years. One can trace these efforts back to the founding of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1953, in the throes of the Cold War, as a means to both confront anti-US propaganda coming out of the Soviet Union and present America in a more positive light. The USIA sponsored tours of performing artists such as Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie; oversaw cultural exchange programs such as the Fulbright Scholarship program; managed the Voice of America radio broadcasts; and produced its own documentaries, under the leadership of both Edward R. Murrow and George Stevens Jr.

In 1999, the USIA was folded into the US Department of State, and America's cultural diplomacy activities now thrive under the auspices of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

The American Film Showcase, now in its second year, is one of many programs that the Bureau oversees. The University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts manages the program, with IDA and Film Independent as partners. (The precursor to the American Film Showcase was the American Documentary Showcase, which ran for three years under the aegis of the University Film and Video Association.)

"Film has been a really popular and effective outreach tool here at the State Department for decades because it is a great opportunity for introducing American contemporary society to others around the world and having conversations about the issues that are explored," maintains one State Department official with whom we spoke. "Documentaries in particular make for a great opening for us with audiences abroad that we'd like to engage. It was an extremely successful first year for the American Film Showcase, since the program met its goals of promoting mutual understanding and basically supporting US foreign policy goals by reaching new and important audiences."

The showcase sent delegations to 21 countries in 2012. Each delegation consists of a filmmaker and an "expert," who has experience not only in filmmaking but also in teaching and mentoring, especially in developing countries. The embassies in the respective countries do the groundwork in reaching out to venues and constituents that would be receptive to hosting screening or workshops-and work with USC and the delegation teams to hone the details of the program.

"The posts tend to program the AFS in two different ways," explains Rachel Gandin Mark, program administrator at the showcase, and director of international programs and special initiatives at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. "One, they base their programming on all the events that the filmmakers and envoys were involved with, based in the content of the documentary, and the flip side is that they focus less on the content of the documentary and more on filmmaking and its practice."

"On the side of looking at the content," Mark continues, "Steve James traveled with his film The Interrupters [about the efforts of street-level Chicagoans to thwart potential violent crimes] to northern Mexico, where they did a number of screenings with reformed gang members. Similarly, we went to Japan to show Rebirth [Dir./Prod.:Jim Whitaker], a documentary about 9/11 and the process of grief over the course of seven years. We took that film to where the [2011] tsumani had hit in northern Japan, and it was extremely powerful to see people who were in the grieving process only a year and half after the disaster to, in turn, see people who had obviously gone through a different kind of trauma [over a seven-year period]. But in many ways the degree of national loss and personal loss was an amazing point of connection.

"On the practice side of it," Mark continues, "we had a weeklong documentary workshop in Cyprus, where they took young Greek filmmakers and young Turkish filmmakers, and they went out and made their own shorts. The motivation for the embassies was to bring these people together, who might not be in the same room together in other contexts. In Russia, we showed Undefeated [Dirs./Prods.:  Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, about a season in the life of a high school football team in Memphis]. When the filmmakers weren't just doing a regular screening with Q&A, they would do things like talk about the art of observational filmmaking. People were shocked to hear that Undefeated was not scripted. Their understanding of docs was so much about talking heads. And I think it really blew people's minds to think about what an observational doc with cinema vérité could look like."

The Interrupters, Undefeated and Rebirth were among the 23 feature-length and short documentaries selected for the first year of the showcase; nine fiction features and animated shorts rounded out the slate. The 2013 roster includes 30 docs and six narratives and animated shorts. USC Distinguished Professor Mark Jonathan Harris headed the selection team as principal co-investigator of the showcase. According to Harris, some of the primary interests of the State Department's educational and cultural division are youth empowerment, women and girls empowerment, and diversity in civil society, and the Showcase is designed with these modules in mind. "I think that's where the power of the State Department program is," says Harris. "In the audience that it reaches, we're talking to future leaders of the country and particularly people who are going to be working in the media.

"The films that we pick are not necessarily the best films of the year in the US," Harris explains. "They're films that target certain themes and reach out to these kinds of audiences, like Undefeated, which really appealed to youth audiences. We're looking for films that are compelling dramatically and also represent the diversity of American values. Page One [Dir.: Andrew Rossi] is about American journalism and the American free press, which is not a commodity that is as highly evident in many places around the world. It'll be interesting to see what embassies pick that. So when we look at a film, we're asking several questions: Does it play well? Is it well made? Is it compelling viewing? Is it about an issue that will play to many places around the world, or is it about an issue that is specific only to one country? So we've been moving in favor of issues that cross borders and that are relevant in many places."

But even the most carefully conceived program can yield unexpected surprises. The showcase programmed Anne Makepeace's We Still Live Here as part of the delegation to Bosnia and Herznogovia. The film, which documents the efforts of members of the indigenous Wampanoag people of Southeastern Massachusetts to revive their language and culture, may not have made intuitive sense as a context for further discussion in a region without an apparent indigenous history, but, as Rachel Gandin Mark notes, "The conflict between people who saw themselves as being there first and really dwelling on events that happened 400 years ago created a space for Bosnians and Serbs to talk about their own history that was a little bit removed and not necessarily as scary if it would have been if we were talking about the specifics of their own history."

"What was interesting was that different ethnic groups responded so differently to the story," Makepeace remarks. "Audiences tended to be one or the other—Bosnian Muslims or Serb Christians. What I learned from the Bosnians is that they had a language that was indigenous to them that had been lost over the past five centuries. One thing that really surprised me was that when we screened at a Serbian high school, my understanding was that the Serbs were the aggressors, but the story they told themselves was that the present-day Muslims are the descendents of people who collaborated with the invading Turks five centuries ago and converted to Islam and betrayed their country by doing so, and the Serbs are the ones who held onto their Christian heritage. Their reaction to the film was, The Turks were the colonizers and the Muslims were the collaborators. It was hard to respond to, but it was very interesting to learn that. The takeaway with We Still Live Here is about moving on and finding ways to make peace with one's history and claim the best part of ones heritage and live in the modern world. So many of the responses—both among Serbs and among Bosnian Muslims—were about, This is our life now; we live in a country with three ethnic groups and we need to find ways to live together. There really was a way in which the themes of We Still Live Here resonated with these different kinds of people."

Roland Legiardi-Laura, director, with Amy Sultan, Edwin Martinez and Deborah Shaffer, of To Be Heard, took his film to four of the most volatile places on the showcase itinerary: Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and Belarus. To Be Heard, which follows the struggles of three teens from the South Bronx in New York City and how their discovery of poetry helps to transform their respective situations, also triggered different reactions from what Legiardi-Laura had been accustomed to when screening the film in the US. "The reactions had to do with understanding the culture of poverty in this country," he explains. "When you go to places like Iraq and Algeria and Belarus and Egypt, there is, relatively speaking, tremendous endemic poverty and lack of access to resources. The subject of my film was three kids from the South Bronx, which is the poorest urban county in the US. Most people in this country, as I've traveled around, get what poverty in America means, and understand that it's both poverty and a poverty of expectation and social restriction. In these countries, that was a bit of a stretch for many of the people, who look at the things that these kids we call ‘poor' had, which were, by other standards, quite comfortable and quite middle class."

As international delegates, the filmmakers and experts not only shared their expertise as artists and teachers, but also, through their work, aimed to present a more complicated image of America. "It's just a given for us that with a film program like this, we don't tend to go to London or Paris or places where people have the opportunities or the exposure to American culture and American films," explains the aforementioned State Department official. "We go to places where it's less common to meet an American in real life, where opportunities to see things beyond the blockbusters are pretty nonexistent. Those are also the places where infrastructure or even steady electricity can be a problem. I think we're very fortunate to have filmmakers who are intrepid as part of the job description. They're used to adapting on the fly."

"It's important for my work as a cultural ambassador," affirms Legiardi-Laura. "The US has appeared only in the most negative ways-we bomb them, we kill them, we sanction them, we make their lives harder. So it was important to put my ass on the line and connect with those people and empathize and share another side of our culture.

"I have to say, my opinions about how America is perceived in the world were confirmed," Legiardi-Laura continues. "But virtually everyone I met were able to distinguish between America, the political entity, and Americans. Nobody blamed me for our policies. The movie The Ugly American, from the 1950s, is pretty much a reflection of our failure as a country to have a truly enlightened foreign policy. The AFS program is an attempt to amend that, and to make amends for that. The filmmakers that I traveled with felt pretty good about the work that we were doing. It's very special to be able to share your work this way. You're in the real world in a much more compelling, day-to-day way. That's one of the gifts of the program."

The 2013 edition of the American Film Showcase is already underway, with film envoys  Eric Neudel and Mary Sweeney having traveled to Laos, a new destination on the showcase's itinerary, in May.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.