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Documentary Diplomacy: American Showcase Launches Third Year

By Bob Fisher

Nineteen documentaries-15 features and four shorts-as well as five animation works have been chosen for the 2011 American Documentary Showcase. The diverse subjects range from an intimate journey with rocker John Mellencamp on a 2009 concert tour to the story of the Freedom Riders movement from the Civil Rights era.

Some of the 2011 Showcase titles include the Academy Award-nominated The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (Dirs./Prods.: Judith Ehrlich, Rick Goldsmith) and Poster Girl (Dir.: Sara Neeson; Prod.: Mitchell Block); Stanley Nelson's Freedom Riders; Marshall Curry's If A Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front; Steve James' No Crossover: The Trial of  Ivan Iverson; John Valadez' The Chicano Wave; and Greg Jacobs and Siskel's Louder Than a Bomb. For the complete list of titles, click here.

 "Our goal is to give people in every part of the world a picture of the history of the United States and what life is like there today," says Showcase project director Betsy McLane. "There is also an unspoken message that there is no censorship in the United States; filmmakers are free to tell stories about darker chapters in the history of our country." 

The Showcase was launched in 2009 as an initiative of the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. "Susan Cohen at the Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs had the idea for the Showcase," McLane says. "I felt that it was something I have been preparing for my entire life. The project requires management by a nonprofit umbrella organization; the University Film and Video Association was chosen to manage the Showcase in 2009, 2010 and 2011. They are an academic organization of film school teachers, filmmakers and archivists." 

McLane says that the number of entries have ranged from 120 to 150 annually. There are no entry fees; the only requirements are sending four DVDs of the film and filling out a form. A screening committee watches every film and selects the finalists.

Entries have been solicited in different categories, which have varied from year to year.  "The screening committee judges if a film fits into one of the specified categories, how effectively it tells a meaningful story and how it will play overseas," McLane explains. "They can choose worthy films about subjects tangential to specified categories."

The documentaries are made available to US embassies, where personnel offer them for screenings at festivals, schools and various other venues. Documentaries chosen for the Showcase during the first two years were seen in more than 50 countries. The filmmaker or a representative generally attends screenings accompanied by a Delegate Expert. "The filmmakers discuss what motivated them and what they learned while making their documentaries," McLane says. "The experts deal with broader issues related to the subject."

"Since the first year of the Showcase, efforts have been made to provide subtitles for the films in the language of the host country. In 2010, for example, sub-titles in Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai and other languages were created for different films."

The addition of animated films in 2010 presented some new challenges. McLane explains that it isn't necessary to explain to audiences in western countries why a stork is carrying a baby, for example (in Nina Paley's The Stork), but those images would probably be puzzling to people in other parts of the world.

The 2010 Showcase included Kim A. Snyder's One Bridge to the Next, a documentary about Dr. Jim Withers who started providing free medical care, including medicines, for homeless people in Pittsburgh during the early 1990s. His work evolved into an organization that he heads which provides street medicine for homeless people. When the film was shown in a village in Nigeria, people asked how they could do the same thing for their homeless people. Snyder contacted Dr. Withers, who worked out an arrangement with the embassy to come to Nigeria, where he visited villages and helped to establish protocols for treating the poor.


Filmmaker Kim Snyder (left) and Delegate Expert Bart Weiss (right) on the radio in NIgeria discussing Snyder's films One Bridge to the Next and Welcome to Shelbyville.



James Chressanthis travelled to Vladivostok and Moscow with his documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos in 2010. The film takes audiences on a 50-year journey with Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, who escaped from Hungary and migrated to the United States as political refugees after the Russian army brutally crushed an uprising against the communist regime in 1956. Kovacs and Zsigmond overcame formidable odds and went on to become iconic Hollywood cinematographers who are renowned around the world.

"I apprenticed with Vilmos on The Witches of Eastwick after graduating from the American Film Institute in 1986,"  Chressanthis recalls. "I met Laszlo when he visited with Vilmos to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the uprising against the communist regime in Hungary. That's when I decided that someday I would produce a documentary telling their stories."

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos opens with archival footage of  Russian tanks and soldiers attacking unarmed civilians on the streets of  Budapest. After he showed the documentary in Moscow, a student told Chressanthis that he didn't know about that dark chapter in his country's history.



Vladivostok media clamor to photograph and interview members of the American documentary delegation: center, left to right: Betsy McLane, program ditrector, American Documentary Showcase; James Chressanthis, director/producer, No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos; Stuart Wilf, subject from Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's How To Fold a Flag.

McLane estimates that about a third of the films featured in the Showcase have made extensive use of archival footage. "The use of archival footage is very important in films that deal with history and culture," she maintains. "We have shown documentaries in Africa that deal with the history of the civil rights movement in America that have been extraordinarily inspiring. Many people in these nations have never heard about or seen people in the United States demonstrating peacefully to achieve equality. That's a new concept for many of them.

"It's one thing to read or hear about that part of our history; it's something else to see it happening," McLane continues. "We have a film this year that uses archival footage of the history of basketball in the United States. Maybe that sounds trivial, because people in the United States have seen basketball games on television for decades. But what does it mean to people in other countries when they see African-Americans aspiring to succeed in a sport that is alien to their nation? They are watching people achieve the American dream. The unspoken message is if you work hard, you can succeed. You can't explain that nearly as effectively without the images."


Kibera Film School students, with filmmaker Micki Dickoff (second from right), after screening of her film Neshoba at the Kenya International Film Festival in Nairobi.

For more information about the American Documentary Showcase, click here.


Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and preservation.


Editor's Note: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and The Library of Congress are collaborating on a research project concerning the current status of  archiving documentaries and the outlook for past and current films being available to future audiences.  Bob Fisher will report in-depth on the findings of that study in a future issue.