Indie moviemakers often take on other roles—entrepreneur, advocate, teacher. Add cultural ambassador and diplomat to that list for some of America’s top cinematic thinkers.

“Cultural diplomacy is a powerful tool, and independent filmmakers are ambassadors of culture,” said Evan Ryan, assistant secretary of state for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). “We find that American culture is always welcomed. Film is a way in. It’s an important focus for us.”

Such was the impetus for Global Media Makers, a new international film exchange co-sponsored by the State Department and Film Independent, a nonprofit known for the Independent Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival. The program, which will begin in May, brings 12 selected filmmakers from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Turkey to L.A. for a month of mentorships, workshops and master classes with leaders in the American film industry.

“These countries have a rich storytelling history, but are underrepresented in cinema and are still developing their film industries,” said Ryan. Additional countries may be included in subsequent years. The program requires that applicants have produced, written and/or directed at least one film, TV or new media project.

These 12 filmmakers will receive creative feedback from high-level industry mentors, including director-producer Jay Duplass, director Ava DuVernay, documentarian Kirby Dick, producer Effie Brown, and TV director-producer Alan Poul, as well as executives such as Fox Searchlight President Nancy Utley and DreamWorks Animation TV’s Kelly Kulchak. Upon returning to their home countries, participants will share their new training and perspectives with their local communities. In 2017 mentors will visit with the filmmakers to offer further support. “We want these filmmakers to gain a better understanding of the U.S. and develop their voice as filmmakers, then bring that back to their communities to affect change and build a bridge between our cultures,” said Ryan.

“We have seen such a high caliber of work [in the applicants],” said Josh Welsh, Film Independent president. Film Independent is developing the curriculum and identifying the mentors, and has worked with U.S. embassies to find applicants.

The State Department has a 75-year history of running cultural exchange programs, in film, art, literature, academics and sports, to help people build connections, develop new skills and create positive change. The ECA operates around 140 programs with more than 55,000 participants a year. These programs include the American Film Showcase, a five-year old partnership with the ECA and USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, also supported by Film Independent and the International Documentary Association. Collaborating with U.S. embassies, the program organizes seven-to-10-day trips for American filmmakers to conduct screenings, workshops and discussions in more than 40 countries per year.

Moviemaker Patrick Shen (left), with documentary subject Dirk Sturtewagen, walking the hills of Belgium in Shen’s film In Pursuit of Silence. Courtesy of Transcendental Media

Patrick Shen (left), with documentary subject Dirk Sturtewagen, walking the hills of Belgium in Shen’s film In Pursuit of Silence. Courtesy of Transcendental Media

Documentarian Patrick Shen (The Philosopher Kings, La Source, In Pursuit of Silence) has been involved with American Film Showcase for three years now. In January he led a seven-day documentary filmmaking workshop in China. “These cultural exchange programs are an incredibly effective way to combat American stereotypes around the world,” said Shen. “Seeing firsthand a film I made bring new dimensions to people’s understanding, or spark conversations around important issues, has made me really appreciate the responsibility that comes with making films.”

They say, after all, that movies are America’s largest export. Here’s to richer cultural trade. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2016 issue, on newsstands now. Featured image photographed by Jean-Michel Dissard, of an American Film Showcase program produced with the U.S. Embassy in Benin.