For the third year, the U.S. State Department is funding the University of Southern California's American Film Showcase, a $3.3 million program that sends American documentary filmmakers and their movies around the world to show them a side of America they may not know.
The program takes "some of the best documentaries made over the last couple years" to residents of other countries, said Alan Baker, an associate dean at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. The goal: To to educate and, maybe, change minds.
Baker said documentaries, in particular, have an enormous power. "One woman said, 'Before I saw this film, I thought everything in America was perfect, and now I can see it isn't, and that makes me feel closer to the U.S., because I can see we have some of the same things in common,'" Baker said.
The program is a good fit for USC and its mission of globalization. (USC has more international students than any other American university.)
Stacy White, head of the State Department's cultural programs division, said it's a good fit for them, too. She said it's a "very important part of American diplomacy to both tell America's story and to provide opportunities for citizen to citizen engagement."
Films are chosen around specific themes – like disabilities or youth violence — to spark a dialogue, particularly in countries where open discussion is not encouraged.
One film in the program, "G-Dog," tells the story of L.A. Catholic priest Father Greg Boyle and how he "created a community to help people." This local tale of reforming L.A. street gangs, she said, "really resonates with many young people in difficult situations around the world."
Oscar-winning filmmaker Freida Mock, the director of "G-Dog," traveled all over Indonesia with the film – from a Jakarta shopping mall to a tiny hamlet near a palm oil plantation. Mock said "G-Dog"'s message of redemption and hope resonated with the younger audiences.
The subject matter was more uncomfortable for the grownups: One teacher criticized her for making the film. But kids defended it. "It was just interesting for me as an outsider to see just how a film created a certain freedom to talk back," Mock said.
Mock and other filmmakers in the program write about their adventures on the American Film Showcase blog.
The idea of using movies to spread American influence isn't new.
White recalls her first foreign posting in Jakarta back in the 1980s, when she met a "charming man who was just about to retire from the embassy." His first job was to drive around in the jungle with a truck, put up a screen and "show a Hollywood film" on it. "And then they would talk about America," she said.
But how well do movies work as a diplomatic tool? Even the State Department says there's no one way to measure success for soft diplomacy.
That's echoed by Andrew Liaropoulos of the Research Institute for European and American Studies, who says you can use quantitative metrics to measure "hard power" — like defense spending and economic sanctions — "but it is tricky to measure influence, reputation, and cultural power."
These days, you don't need a screen in the jungle: You can watch American movies on your smart phone. But documentaries can show a slice of actual American life.
This year, the American Film Showcase will take documentaries and their filmmakers to nearly three dozen countries, including Paraguay, Kosovo, and Panama.