The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs launched the American Film Showcase (AFS) in October, 2011, with the goal of introducing people around the world to American culture and values through the global language of film.
The Showcase, administered by the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, sent contemporary American documentaries and feature films to 21 countries. Film Independent and the International Documentary Association are partners in this ambitious endeavor. Alan Baker, Associate Dean of Administration & International Projects at the University of Southern California, supervises the showcase, in association with Mark Jonathan Harris and Michel Renov, Professor of Critical Studies at SCA.
Nineteen documentaries, two feature length narrative films, and eight short films were seen by audiences. The filmmaker and an expert, AKA envoy, conducted discussions with audiences following the screenings. The purpose was to show diverse communities, including those with little or no access to independent films, a wide range of American films.
Harrison Engle was the expert who travelled to South Korea—along with filmmaker Chris Paine and his documentary Revenge of the Electric Car. The non-fiction feature was released in 2011. It takes audiences behind the scenes at Nissan, General Motors, and Tesla Motors, a start-up company in California, where innovative technologies are driving a resurgence in consumers embracing electric vehicles. The 90-minute documentary is narrated by Tim Robbins. It features an array of commentaries, including Danny DeVito, Stephen Colbert, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
The title comes in the wake of Who Killed the Electric Car? which Paine wrote and directed in 2006.
Engle brought a unique perspective to the role he played. He began his career as a documentary cameraman for PBS and the BBC after earning a Master of Fine Arts degree in film from Columbia University. Engle subsequently produced and directed documentaries for the United States Information Agency. George Stevens, Jr. brought him to Hollywood as a line producer for America at the Movies, a two-hour salute to the bicentennial of the United States produced by the American Film Institute. His body of work as a documentary director, producer, and editor includes The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt (1986), Benny Carter: Symphony in Riffs (1989), Moshe Dayan: A Warrior’s Story (1996), War and Peace (1998) and The Lost Kennedy Home Movies (2011). Engle was president of the International Documentary Association in 1997. Following are excerpts of a conversation with Engle sharing memories and insights about his experiences in South Korea.
MovieMaker (MM): What role do the experts play?
Harrison Engle (HE): The experts are senior filmmakers who are there to speak more broadly about filmmaking in the United States and answer questions about careers in production. I also brought a reel of clips of scenes from some of my documentaries to show to audiences.
MM: Did you know Chris Paine before this endeavor?
HE: I didn’t know Chris, but I had seen Who Killed the Electric Car? and Revenge of the Electric Car. They are both highly regarded documentaries that deal with an important subject that was a good fit for audiences in South Korea. Chris and I really hit it off.
MM: How did you prepare to speak with audiences in South Korea?
HE: Chris and I read the State Department postings about South Korea and things to do and not do. We were speaking principally at film schools, universities and high schools, so I researched and found information about every school that we were scheduled to speak at.
MM: What was the first day in South Korea like?
HE: We met with people in the Public and Cultural Affairs Departments at the American embassy in Seoul. In addition to our briefings on the schools, we were escorted on a wonderful day-long walking tour of Seoul. We saw many historical sites, ate at out-of-the-way restaurants, and checked out the museums. It was a wonderful introduction to Korean culture.
MM: What were the next steps in your adventure?
HE: Each day we would be picked up at nine in the morning. There were seven or eight of us in the van, including the U.S. embassy cultural affairs officer, a translator, and a couple of interns. After we arrived at the first school, we were introduced to the heads of the department. After a brief conversation, they ushered us into a jam-packed classroom and introduced us. There might be around 125 film and broadcasting students. We had sent my reel of film clips and Revenge of the Electric Car ahead of our arrivals. The professors showed those films to their students before we arrived, so they were prepared to ask questions. Chris and I were introduced by the head of the department. We went on the stage and started speaking. The way you approach that varies greatly depending on who is in the audience and what country you’re in.
MM: Did you get a sense they were familiar with American films?
HE: Yes, but to a limited extent. South Korea is a homogenous culture. They are proud of their industry. Most students had not experienced American films in depth with the exception of big budget Hollywood movies—primarily action films. I don’t think there are art house theaters in South Korea, or if there are there are very few. Film distribution is limited. We met documentary and feature filmmakers who had the usual complaints about getting their films funded and seen. Those are familiar issues for filmmakers around the world. Two big companies run all the theaters in Korea. If you make an independent feature or an independent documentary it’s going to play to very small audiences, because there are only a few independent theaters. But, they do have a few internationally well regarded film festivals, particularly the Bussan International Film Festival in the city of that name on the southern tip of South Korea. That festival is sort of like the Cannes of South Korea. Films from around the world play there. There are a number of other film festivals for animated independent features and documentaries.
MM: Did you get a feeling that films speak a global language that informs as well as entertains people around the world? Also, tell us how that applies to documentaries?
HE: In 2009, I traveled with the American Documentary Showcase to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia. That program was sponsored by the University Film and Video Association. It was very similar to the current one. One difference was that the two filmmakers, me and Margaret Brown, screened 20 documentaries in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. People watched and related to them. The purpose of this program is to get people in other countries comfortable and more familiar with our culture. An unspoken part of this mission is to get people to think about using films to communicate with people in their own society.
MM: Did you get the impression that the young filmmakers you met were familiar with American films and filmmakers?
HE: Most people are focused on their own cultures and day to day lives, and not what’s going on halfway around the world. However, we did meet people in South Korea who were dedicated to educating the populace and creating change.
MM: What other interesting experiences did you have in South Korea?
HE: Chris and I visited the Imp Kwon Take film archive and library. He is a Korean feature film director who has directed 100 films. Imp won the best director award and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Painted Fire in 2002. It’s a dramatic film about a Korean artist. Imp’s films have won awards at other festivals around the world, including Germany, France, Moscow, Austria, and Chicago and Hawaii in the United States. But, the truth is that the vast majority of Americans, including filmmakers, have never heard of him.
I also visited a foreign language high school in Seoul. We drove about an hour and a half to get to the east end of Seoul. It’s a huge city that is twice as big as Los Angeles. Twenty million people live there. We finally got there on a Friday evening. It was the last speech I made. I was exhausted and my voice was fading. They had signs up all over the place guiding me in the right direction. I walked into a large classroom and everybody gave me a big round of applause. I took a deep bow and tried to start speaking, but I had lost my voice. I ran my reel which bought me some time while I gulped down a bottle of water.
When I started speaking, a hand went up and one of the very bright students spoke flawless English. He was a high school senior. He said, “Excuse me, but to be brutally honest, don’t you have to admit that it is very difficult to make a living as a documentary filmmaker?” I burst out laughing, and everybody in class was laughing with me. That sort of recharged me. I said, “Yes, you’re absolutely right. Next question!” Everybody laughed. Suddenly, I was wide awake and got my energy back. One girl in the front row said that she wanted to study film at NYU, so they are probably a lot more aware of us than we are of them. Certainly no one in any high school here would know anything whatsoever about a film school in Korea.
MM: Did people ask how to get their films seen in the United States?
HE: The filmmakers I met were interested in making movies for their home market. No one asked how to get a film distributed in America.
MM: Do you have any other observations to share?
HE: The students and other people I met are a lot more familiar with America and our films that we are with Korea and their films.
MM: Do you think that narrative films and documentaries can play a broader role in educating people about cultures around the world?
HE: I recently saw Samsara, a documentary produced in 65mm film format. Ron Fricke directed and photographed the non-fiction film over a five year period in 25 countries. The content ranges from natural wonders to industrial complexes and sacred grounds. That film is a wondrous example of how a determined documentary filmmaker can create content to enlighten people around the world.
(Editor’s note: Information about the American Film Showcase can be found at www.americanfilmshowcase.usc.edu/)