Sundance. Some local Park City filmgoers were curious about the group. When I explained why they were there, the response was “Really? My tax dollars go towards sending a group of filmmakers to the U.S.?” It was not the first time I had heard such a question. Nor will it likely be the last. But it made me realize that such a question points even deeper to the necessity of such a cultural exchange.

Americans sometimes forget how much our film industry has an impact on public opinion worldwide. The majority of the filmmakers on the exchange programs had never been to the United States before. Their only exposure to this country was what they saw in the movies and by meeting Americans visiting their countries or at international film festivals — while forgetting that fewer than half of Americans even own a passport.American cinema dominates worldwide box offices but can also give a skewed view of what America is all about. The top grossing films in the world market so far this year according to Box Office Mojo are Fast Five, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and The Hangover Part II. Entertaining, certainly. Professionally-produced, most probably. The only window onto American values, heaven help us.

What we also forget is that, while American film can have an impact on public opinion worldwide, so too are filmmakers, writers, and artists in other countries often opinion-leaders in their countries. In many cases, as much if not more than politicians, educators, or religious leaders. Is it any wonder that the Czech Republic selected Vaclav Havel to be its first President in a post-Cold War world? On a more somber note, why would Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh have been killed following the release of his controversial work, Submission, part of a wave of artistic critiques of Islam in an ever more multi-cultural Europe? Why would filmmaker Jafar Panahi be jailed and banned from filmmaking in Iran were it not a belief that what he has to say and show can somehow influence an ever more restless public?

Filmmakers also have an influence in the United States whether we want to admit it or not. The structure of cinema has an impact on how we see our narrative and the narrative of our heroes. The belief that we will get through whatever difficulties are in our lives or in our national history is really no different than the Syd Field school of storytelling – things look dark in Act II, but all will be resolved in Act III and we will live happily ever after. Most international visitors comment on this American optimism and belief that individuals are in control of our own destiny as one of the most noticeable common traits — whether seeing this through the fast paced existence of New York, how American schoolchildren are taught in a midwestern school, talking to anti-nuclear protesters who have stood vigil in front of the White House for 30 years, or even by talking to American documentary filmmakers who persevere in spite of an environment where the funding prospects never seem to improve.

The visitors on these trips got to see the United States, warts and all. Urban sprawl, homelessness, economic disparities, and occasional ignorance were all on view. This was not a disneyfied version of America. Nor was it one which was trying to sell them on the American approach to life. Though one could easily assume that a government-funded program is little more than a propaganda visit, the approach is far more hands-off. In fact, the participants had a chance to meet and have open discussions with many individuals who have even made films which protest American domestic and foreign policy. Gaining understanding by direct exposure is far different than being propagandized to. And filmmakers have such a natural B.S. meter built into their very beings, that propaganda would not have worked in any case.

The International Visitor Leadership Program is only one program to promote exchange. Department of State funds have also supported exchange programs administered through film festivals like Full Frame and Tribeca, the International Documentary Filmmakers Fellowship which has been administered by The Documentary Center at the George Washington University, and the American Documentary Showcase which brings award-winning American independent documentaries (many of which expose an America struggling with issues of prejudice, free speech, and environmental degradation) to non-theatrical venues with audiences around the world. (We are very excited that Docs In Progress alum Andre Dahlman participated in this year’s American Documentary Showcase. He contributed a separate article about his recent experiences in Tajikistan).

And not all exchanges are directly government-supported. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has an International Outreach Committee which has sent delegations of Academy members to Vietnam, Cuba, and Iran. There are a few dedicated private foundations whose mission is to promote international arts exchanges. For example, CEC Artslink (which is supporting Docs In Progress’ new exchange program with Dokufest in Kosovo) has existed for nearly 50 years, supporting the works of artists and arts administrators exchanging with counterparts in nations with long histories of reciprocal distrust, insularity and conflict.

While Western European and Canadian filmmakers have relatively easy access to the United States, whether for tourism or to work on film projects, the majority of the world’s filmmakers have less easy access. If they see the U.S. at all, it may be for a few days in the whirlwind of a film festival where the focus is more on presenting their film, going to parties, and doing press interviews than it might be in getting a deeper glimpse into American society. With the general state of the economy, festivals are getting more and more selective about who they can fund to travel internationally. And prospects are even more bleak for emerging filmmakers or those from regions of the world with lesser known but thriving documentary communities. Had it not been for these international exchange programs, I might not have known about film organizations similar to Docs In Progress taking hold in Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Burma. I might not have known that some of the most talented and tenacious documentary filmmakers in the Muslim world are women. I might not have had my mind opened and assumptions challenged by making those person-to-person connections. And I know that many of these opinion-leaders experienced something similar by seeing America and Americans firsthand.


© 2011, Docs In Progress
May only be reprinted with permission from the author.