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Creator Diplomacy: Changing the Face America Shows the World

By Steven Starr

From 'FLOW' (Dir. Irena Salina; Prod.: Steven Starr).

American filmmakers and journalists have relatively free rein with what stories we tell and how we tell them. For all of our country's faults, our dedication to the principle of free speech generally prevails, whether or not the government supports what is being said.

Still, I was surprised when approached by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US State Department to participate in a new program called the American Documentary Showcase. The program, going on the road during this first year of President Obama’s administration, supports an international film series that includes some of the most controversial American documentaries produced in recent years.

Our documentary FLOW brings attention to our global water crisis and is highly critical of corporate water practices. And yet we are among the films the State Department would like to screen in countries such as Libya, Sudan, Indonesia and Afghanistan.

While we’re eager to share FLOW with the world, we came to the project skeptically. FCC auction giveaways and embedded Iraqi war coverage hadn't exactly enamored the US government to those of us working in independent media. What did the State Department have to gain from this program? Were the politics of change really upon us?

Despite serious reluctance, my curiosity got the best of me. Just 25 days after Barack Obama took office, 30 documentarians and representatives of the International Documentary Association (IDA) and the University Film and Video Association (UFVA) met for the Showcase’s orientation session in Los Angeles with Susan Cohen, a State Department official. The filmmakers in the room were fearless, political (on both sides of the spectrum) and not notably generous to those in power. The question for the State Department that Saturday could be summed up in two words: Why us?

Cohen's response was perfectly rational and completely unexpected. She said that freedom of expression is our nation's biggest asset, a rare commodity in today's world. It’s America’s "brand," and in the critical rebuilding of our international relationships, we'd be well served to show the world what we mean by it. She further reassured us that we would be encouraged to speak freely at the screenings, even if to do so would shine a critical light on the American government. This is an exercise in freedom of expression, we were told. Express yourself. Freely.

In screening FLOW internationally, we've seen audiences moved to speak out in surprising ways: a 12-year-old girl in the Dominican Republic publicly challenging local water officials to improve water quality after losing her younger brother to dirty water; a Los Angeles activist organizing a massive march to protest water privatization; a former corporate water executive criticizing privatization practices at a Sundance Film Festival discussion. I could keep going, but if the US government wants to inspire similar acts of courage by showing our film and others like it around the world, we need to participate.

The rest of the filmmakers agree. Imagine a young South African boy deeply moved by the slaveholder revelations of Katrina Brown's Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Or an Ecuadorian medical student inspired by the street medicine of Kim Snyder's One Bridge to the Next to start her own practice in Quito. The possibilities are endless.

Before producing FLOW, I managed KPFK, a progressive radio station in LA. When I told my former colleagues that we were asked to participate in the American Documentary Showcase, they were surprised I'd agree to be a face for the US government—a government whose actions we often forcefully critique in our work as journalists.

While I understood their trepidation, FLOW's larger opportunity is incontrovertible, and there's simply no way to predict the potential impact of such a series on the audiences and filmmakers alike. It is in that very unpredictability that the power of this program rests, and where my skepticism falters. The American Documentary Showcase offers a great chance to catalyze audiences to deeper awareness and/or action, and the crisis of water privatization is urgent all over the world.

Over the past eight years, I've experienced the politics of "againstness," often for good cause, and I've opposed US government policy abroad. But in the fragile promise of a new day, I've often asked myself what one can stand for, and the answer in this case comes back loud and clear: I'll stand for freedom of expression, by whatever means necessary.


Steven Starr produced the award-winning documentary FLOW, which illustrates the dangers of the worldwide trend to privatize public water rights. The American Documentary Showcase is sponsored by the US Department of State, in conjunction with the University Film and Video Association (UFVA) and the International Documentary Association (IDA).