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Doc Diplomacy: American Film Showcase Presents Democracy to the World

By Amanda Lin Costa

Selected for the American Film Showcase, Steve Jame's 'The Interrupters'. Courtesy of Kartemquin Films

Nearly a hundred years ago, William Allen White, the iconic writer and spokesperson for small-town America, wrote, "If each man or woman could understand that every other human life is as full of sorrows, or joys, or base temptations, of heartaches and of remorse as his own... how much kinder, how much gentler he would be." Audiences emotionally connect with films when they discover they share with the "characters" the common thread of humanity. This goes for both nonfiction and narrative films. One doesn't have to be a Latina in America to relate to the pressures of family and society expectations (Real Women Have Curves) or live in America's heartland to be concerned about the impact of environmental policies (Gasland). Diplomacy and healthy international relations are based on finding common threads between unique and disparate cultures. The American Film Showcase (AFS), a project supported by the US Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, utilizes film to share America's culture and citizens with the world in the hopes of finding common ground.

The Showcase builds upon a 60-year tradition nof public diplomacy through film programming. The idea of screening films for foreign audiences as a diplomatic tool may have had its origins in the 16mm screenings held in villages during World War II. During the Cold War that followed, US government support for American film was considered essential overseas to counter the threat of communism. According to one State Department official we spoke with, film was "considered so essential to public engagement abroad that the motion picture service was one of the four main divisions of the United States Information Agency [USIA] when it was created in 1953. When USIA's exchange functions were folded into the US State Department in 1999, the Feature Film Service continued to work to providing feature films and documentaries for American embassies to screen abroad for local audiences."

The precursor to AFS was the American Documentary Showcase, a three-year project managed by the University Film and Video Association. The new Showcase, launched this past February under the auspices of the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts (USC), with IDA and Film Independent as partners, has assembled 23 feature and short documentaries, as well as two narrative films and four animated works (the Documentary Showcase also included animation in its mix.). Leading the program from USC are Mark Jonathan Harris, professor and head of advanced documentary production; Michael Renov, professor of critical studies and vice dean for academic affairs; and Alan Baker, associate dean, administration and international projects. As Harris explains about the selection process for the films in the Showcase, "We had a large panel of film experts who recommended films and filmmakers they thought would represent the democratic values, freedom of expression and excellence of independent filmmaking in the US. Michael Renov, Alan Baker and I made the final selections with the help of our staff. We sent those recommendations to the State Department for final approval."  

At press time, the exact travel itinerary for delegations is still being worked out.  The program held a two-day orientation meeting in February, which included film experts and filmmakers from the previous showcase sharing their reports from the field. According to Baker, their experiences were "overwhelming and life-altering," and had reaffirmed their commitment as documentary filmmakers–especially given that for many of the countries on the three-year itinerary, documentary filmmaking is not well supported.

This year, the filmmakers and film experts in the American Film Showcase will travel to approximately 25 different countries. Anticipated to commence in early June and continue through March 2013, the trips will range in length from seven to ten days. For each trip, the filmmaker, who travels with an expert, is selected by the local embassies because of their interest in screening his or her film, and the schedules and activities are arranged by the US Embassies in those countries. An embassy staff representative, generally a native speaker, will accompany the filmmaker and expert the entire time. The expert may be another filmmaker or in some instances an academic or a specialist in film financing or distribution. A senior showcase staff person may also accompany the team and serve as the liaison among the embassies, the filmmakers and the State Department. Depending on the country, filmmakers will spend time in the capitol cities and may also travel to smaller cities and communities. Filmmakers are alerted if there are special visa requirements or inoculations required, as well as potential cultural sensitivities.

Selected for the American Film Showcase, 'To Be Heard' (Directors: Amy Sultan, Roland Legiardi-Laura, Edwin Martinez, Deborah Shaffer)

I spoke with several filmmakers who had either participated in the American Documentary Showcase or had been selected to participate in the AFS program. Alice Elliot participated in the Documentary Showcase in 2011, traveling to Uzbekistan with her film Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy, which profiles two women with disabilities who are determined to live independent, non-institutionalized lives. "A few days before we were to leave, the US Embassy in Tashkent e-mailed and suggested we might want to postpone our trip because the Uzbek government had not approved our programs," she recalls. "It was touch and go if we should leave, but eventually we decided to proceed as planned, even if we had a more limited program than was originally conceived. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when I heard we had been selected to travel to Uzbekistan. It was a place I never had on my to-do list. However, as I learned, it is a key ally to the US, and New York has a large group of Jews who had fled from Bukhara and Tashkent. Uzbekistan has over 28 million people and our film was translated into Russian and Uzbek for the screenings.

"Our delegation included one of the people in my documentary," Elliott continues. "One of the principles of the disability rights movement is, ‘Nothing About Us, Without Us.' That means that people with disabilities should be fully included in all events. We found many barriers to mobility, like stairs instead of ramps, lack of elevators, and parochial attitudes. The trip was eye-opening, life-changing and deeply satisfying. I came to see the American Documentary Showcase as an opportunity to serve my country. As a woman, a pacifist and an artist, I never expected to be able to contribute my time and talent to our State Department in a way that would further the democratic values that I hold dear. This experience reminded me of the spectrum of patriotism that is possible. Being under a repressive government for even ten days was chilling. By showing films like Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy, New Muslim Cool and Trouble the Water, I was vividly reminded of the rights we have to criticize our government, work for change and express ourselves."

Selected for the American Film Showcase, Renee Tajima-Pena's 'Calavera Highway'. Courtesy of POV

Filmmaker Steve James was selected in 2011 for No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, but he was unable to fit a trip to Bahrain into his schedule. "This time around, when they picked The Interrupters, I was like, ‘Wow, I get another shot at it,'" he exclaims. "I thought it was a great idea for the State Department to take films that are candid portraits of America out to the world–it is American democracy at its best–and not just pick films that are positive. What's really great about the program is they are not sharing the film in Paris and London or vacation paradises; they are showing it in troubled spots in nations that are in upheaval."

Claire Aguilar, vice president of programming at ITVS, is participating in AFS as a film expert. Asked about some of the topics that would stand out in the context of the Showcase, she notes,  "Underserved communities like the LGBTQ community, or seniors or physically or mentally challenged are always interesting to see through a US perspective–and to see how much universality extends to international communities. One of the most interesting issues right now internationally is the impact of Islam on the world–in the US it is seen through the impact of 9/11 on America–or how the perceptions of Islam in the US have evolved and continue to change."

So much of the appeal for the filmmakers and film experts is the opportunity to travel and interact with new audiences. Tiffany Shlain is participating with her film Connected. "In many ways, it is the best thing we could have hoped for," she affirms. "Our goal with Connected has always been to trigger a global conversation about what it means to be ‘connected' in the 21st Century, both personally and globally. We have an international distributor, but what we love about this program is it is going to reach places where Connected may not have played."

Aguilar reiterates the excitement of the travel. "In my day job as VP of programming at ITVS, I travel quite a bit already, but I hope that by representing the American Film Showcase, I can go to countries that are unknown to me and that could benefit from having Americans working in documentary visit and share experiences. The media diplomacy that is embraced through the American Film Showcase is a different kind; it's an in-person meeting of people to share this media, and the impact and power of the exchange is the biggest benefit." 

"I remember one of the first times I went to China," Harris reflects. "The first thing my interpreter told me is that she had seen all the episodes of Sex and the City. ‘Do women in America really dress like that every day?' she asked. The AFS program is grounded in the belief that it is important that Hollywood and mainstream television, as entertaining as they may be, not be the principal way people in other countries learn about what it's like to live in America. The films we've chosen represent a broad range of geographical, ethnic and racial diversity in America. They highlight the freedom of expression, including freedom to dissent and question governmental policy, that may not be operative in many countries in the world."

Amanda Lin Costa is a writer and producer in the film and television industry. She writes a series called Truth in Documentary Filmmaking and is currently producing the documentary The Art of Memories

American Film Showcase-Documentary Films

Calavera Highway (Director: Renee Tajima-Peña)

Catfish (Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman)

Connected (Director: Tiffany Shlain)

Elevate (Director: Anne Buford)

Food, Inc. (Director: Robert Kenner)

For Once in My Life (Director: Jim Bigham)

Gasland (Director: Josh Fox)

The Interrupters (Director: Steve James)

Mad Hot Ballroom (Director: Marilyn Agrelo)

Rebirth (Director: Jim Whitaker)

Revenge of the Electric Car (Director: Chris Paine)

Shakespeare High (Director: Alex Rotaru)

Spellbound (Director: Jeffrey Blitz)

Sweetgrass (Directors: Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash)

To Be Heard (Directors: Amy Sultan, Roland Legiardi-Laura, Edwin Martinez, Deborah Shaffer)

Undefeated (Directors: Daniel Lindsay, T.J. Martin)

We Still Live Here (Director: Anne Makepeace)

Who Killed The Electric Car? (Director: Chris Paine)

Wo Ai Ni Mommy (Director: Stephanie Wang-Breal)

Documentary Shorts:

Library of Dust (Directors: Ondi Timoner, Robert James)

Phantom Limb (Director: Jay Rosenblatt)

Pilgrimage (Director: Tadashi Nakamura)

A Poet's Alzheimer's (aka Translating Edwin Honig: A Poet's Alzheimer's) (Director: Alan Berliner)

Film Experts:

Claire Aguilar–Vice President of Programming at the Independent Television Service (ITVS)

Kate Amend–Documentary film editor (The Long Way Home; Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport)

Alan Berliner–Documentary filmmaker (The Sweetest Sound; Nobody's Business; Intimate Stranger; The Family Album)

Les Blank–Documentary filmmaker (Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers; Spend It All; A Well Spent Life; Gap-Toothed Women)

Ted Braun–Associate Professor, Screenwriting and Motion Picture Script Analysis, USC School of Cinematic Arts; documentary filmmaker (Darfur Now)

Patricia Cardoso–Feature film director (Real Women Have Curves); Adjunct FRaculty, USC School of Cinematic Arts

Mary Ann Doane–UC Berkeley Class of 1937 Professor of Film and Media; author (The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s; Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis; The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive)

Harrison Engle–Documentary filmmaker (The Lost Kennedy Home Movies; The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt; They Came to Play; Future Flight)

Jane Gaines–Professor, Film Program, School of the Arts at Columbia University; author (Contested Culture: The Image, the Voice and the Law; Fire and Desire: Mixed Race Movies in the Silent Era)

Lynn Goldfarb–Documentary filmmaker (California and the American Dream; The New Los Angeles; Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire); educator (USC School of Cinematic Arts; American Center, US Embassy, Yangon, Myanmar)

Mark Jonathan Harris–Distinguished Professor, Head of Advanced Documentary Production, USC School of Cinematic Arts; documentary filmmaker (THE REDWOODS; Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport; The Long Way Home)

Judith Helfand–Documentary filmmaker (Everything's Cool; Blue Vinyl; A Healthy Baby Girl); educator (Kanbar Institute of Film & Television, New York University)

Jeremy Kagan–Professor of Production, USC School of Cinematic Arts; filmmaker (Golda's Balcony; The ACLU Freedom Files; Crown Heights)

Marsha Kinder–Professor, Critical Studies, USC School of Cinematic Arts; author (Blood Cinema; Playing with Power)

Lisa Leeman–Documentary filmmaker (One Lucky Elephant ; Who Needs Sleep?; Metamorphosis: Man into Woman; Out of Faith); Adjunct Faculty, USC School of Cinematic Arts

Doe Mayer–Professor/Mary Pickford Chair, Co-Head, Documentary Production Program, USC School of Cinematic Arts and USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Bill Nichols–Professor, Department of Cinema, San Francisco State University; author (Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary; Introduction to Documentary)

Amanda Pope–Professor of Production, USC School of Cinematic Arts; documentary filmmaker (The Desert of Forbidden Art)

Anayansi Prado–Documentary filmmaker (Paraiso for Sale; Children in No Man's Land; Maid in America)

Michael Renov–Professor of Critical Studies and Vice Dean for Academic Affairs, USC School of Cinematic Arts; author (The Subject of Documentary; Theorizing Documentary)

B. Ruby Rich–Professor, Social Documentation, University of California, Santa Cruz; author (Chick Flicks: Theories and Memories of the Feminist Film Movement)

Jay Rosenblatt–Documentary filmmaker (Phantom Limb; The Darkness of Day; Human Remains; The Smell of Burning Ants)

Mary Sweeney–Feature film director/writer/producer/editor (Mulholland Drive; The Straight Story; Baraboo; Twin Peaks); Associate Professor, Screenwriting, USC School of Cinematic Arts

Tyger Williams–Writer/producer (Menace II Society); Adjunct Professor, USC School of Cinematic Arts

Debra Zimmerman–Executive Director, Women Make Movies

Patricia Zimmermann–Professor, Cinema, Photography, Media Arts, Ithaca College; Co-Director, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival