As Barack Obama delivered a rock star moment last night in Denver, a Minnesota-made documentary screened at the Walker that I suspect was also simulcast from Obama Command Central. David Axelrod, are you responsible for this?
Sure, The Listening Project is a documentary about the U.S.’s image crisis abroad. Really though it’s a call for a kinder, gentler American, a citizen of the world…an Obama American. The film’s unmistakable message: Wake up, America, and start listening, really listening to the rest of the world. We’re all in this together.
Chasing an idea hatched and bankrolled by Jim Pohlad (Carl’s son), Twin Cities-based directors Dominic Howes and Joel Weber deployed four everyman correspondents to fourteen countries to poll the masses about what they think about the United States. The filmmakers recruited as “listeners” a New Yorker who organizes grassroots youth activists and three Minnesotans (Breck history teacher Carrie Lennox, spoken word artist Bao Phi, probation officer Bob Roeglin) who also joined the directors last night for a post-screening Q&A.
Roaming the pubs, city streets, campuses, and living rooms of Kabul, Cape Town, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Palestine, London, and other points on the globe, they found, if not consensus, a few predictable themes:
The world loves our music, our movies, our fast food. They hate our president.
They’re fascinated by our wealth, our power, even our narcissism.
But they wonder, “How much do Americans know (or care to know) about us?”
They have some requests:
Stop trying to make the world in your image.
Stop being the bully on the block, instigating problems that ripple through the smallest of nations.
And could you once get involved in a conflict that doesn’t benefit your bottom line?
The Brits and Russians warn (sympathetically) that we’re an empire in decline. Canadians sniff that our world view is shaped by fear and paranoia. The French manage to suggest both envy and superiority, with one jolly fellow lamenting his own embarrassing president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sandwiched between man-on-the-street sound bites and very brief portraits of everyday folks whose lives we’ve bettered or ruined is. . .a beautiful travelogue.
Like a National Geographic spread come to life, the camera sweeps over grubby streetscapes, gleaming megalopolises, slums, shantytowns, and wide-eyed kids framed like Mary Ellen Mark portraits. These moments are edited into quickly paced montages set to Reid Kruger’s pulsing soundscapes and lonely piano melodies. The riot of images, music, and opinions is often heartbreaking but too easy.
The film asks us to listen to blistering critiques we’d presumably rather ignore and to pay attention to a world of people we normally dismiss—but it spends so little time with their stories that it actually demands very little of us. Well-intentioned populist agitprop, yes, but intellectually The Listening Project is a fairly shallow grab for the heartstrings. If the goal is to humble us, to knock us off our feet with reflections of our own bluster and ethnocentrism, there must be a more persuasive way.
Episode two, season two of Ira Glass’s This American Life on Showtime offered maybe a better approach. It followed an Iraqi man who had lived through the 2003 invasion and was now setting up booths in towns around the United States, advertising a simple invitation: “Talk to an Iraqi.” He hoped his own listening project would connect him with Americans who could explain why they supported the war.
And what did he hear? Mostly diatribes on the price that must be paid for freedom; windy summations about the daily safety and prosperity of Iraq, pre- and post-Saddam; bold exhortations about what the Iraqi people need and want. Few of the people he met used the encounter to challenge their entrenched opinions about Iraq or even to talk to the Iraqi right in front of them.
Listening? We don’t even know what that means.