Projects: American Documentary Showcase

The American Documentary Showcase was a curated program of contemporary documentaries that was offered to US Embassies for screening abroad.

Funded by, and as a cooperative program with, the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State, the Showcase was designed to promote new American documentaries and their filmmakers at international overseas venues, including US Embassy-organized events and/or US Embassy supported international documentary film festivals. The Showcase began as a partnership with The University Film and Video Association and the Department of State. Betsy McLane was the foundering director, leading the project from 2009-2012. After Betsy left the program it was renamed the American Film Showcase. Information about those programs can be found at:

“Which Way Home,” a film shown abroad as part of the American Documentary Showcase.Credit...HBO Documentary Films
“Which Way Home,” a film shown abroad as part of the American Documentary Showcase.Credit...HBO Documentary Films

KIM A. SNYDER’S “Welcome to Shelbyville” is a melting-pot movie, a simmer 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?”

“Welcome to Shelbyville,” one of the films in the American Documentary Showcase, a State Department program.Credit...Greg Poschman
“Welcome to Shelbyville,” one of the films in the American Documentary Showcase, a State Department program.Credit...Greg Poschman

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,” 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, Sascha 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.”

By Nick Dager, Digital Cinema Report, September 13, 2010

American Documentary Showcase in the USSR
Betsy A. McLane in Vladivostock. American Documentary Showcase in the USSR

Russian audiences will get unique insights into the American way of life during the next several weeks at film festivals in Vladistock and Moscow. No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos and How to Fold A Flag will be featured at the Pacific Meridian Festival in Vladivostok and the Show US! Film Festival in Moscow. Both films were chosen for the 2010 American Documentary Showcase. No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos is the story of two Hungarians who came to the United States as political refugees in 1957 in the wake of the Russian army crushing an uprising against the communist regime in their native land. Laszlo Kovacs ASC and Vilmos Zsigmond ASC overcame formidable obstacles and became iconic cinematographers who are recognized around the world. The documentary was produced and directed by James Chressanthis ASC a cinematographer who apprenticed with Zsigmond in 1986.
His documentary features archival footage from memorable films shot by Kovacs and Zsigmond interviews with them and some 70 critics actors directors other filmmakers family and friends.
Chressanthis will also conduct workshops and seminars with Russian filmmakers. I thought about making this documentary about these two amazingly talented human beings for 30 years Chressanthis says. It’s a story about their brotherhood and the bond that held them together as well as how they created magnificent art.

How to Fold A Flag is part of a trilogy about how American veterans are coping with life after returning from serving in the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was produced and directed by Michael Tucker. He filmed the interviews with veterans who freely share memories and feelings about the war their lives after returning home and how they were treated by the Veterans Administration. Stuart Wilf a veteran featured in How to Fold A Flag is traveling to Vladivostok and Moscow. He will answer questions after screenings; meet with students and faculty members at the Russian State University for the Humanities the public and the press.   

Nine other films chosen for the 2010 American Documentary Showcase will be shown at Show US! Film Festival in Moscow Beginning Filmmaking Traces of the Trade People’s President Hobart Shakespeareans Order of Myths Craft in America Note By Note One Bridge to the Next and A Fair to Remember. These films offer a broad diversified look at life in the United States and the values of a democratic society as seen by independent filmmakers who are free to express their opinions says project director Betsy McLane Ph.D. The American Documentary Showcase was founded in 2009 as a cooperative venture by the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the United States government and the University Film and Video Association whose members are on film school faculties. So far 29 American documentaries have been seen in 23 countries.