This Land Is Whose Land?

Canvassing Disney's 'America' with an independent filmmaker

Fahrenheit 9/11 isn't the only political documentary this week. In fact, the doc that Disney has chosen to distribute instead--America's Heart & Soul, billed as "a thrill ride into the sights and sounds of our cultural diversity"--seems designed to wave a flag on the Fourth of July while Michael Moore's movie bids to set it ablaze.

An earnest ode to old-fashioned characters (including cowboys and Indians), shot in 35mm by a veteran of McDonald's, Coors, and Citicorp commercials, America's Heart & Soul is the rare right-wing documentary. But its basic concept--filmmaker hits the road in search of the "real America"--was inaugurated last year by Twin Cities-based documentarian Mark Wojahn, who created his own American travelogue, What America Needs: From Sea to Shining Sea, with a rather more progressive agenda in mind.

With Wojahn's doc screening twice on Independence Day as part of the "Multiplex" showcase at the Soap Factory (visit www.whatamericaneeds.com for more info)--and practically everyone debating the political function of documentaries post-9/11 and pre-election--the time seemed perfect to drag the documentarian to a Heart & Soul preview and then invite him to spill his guts.

 

City Pages:When you saw the ads forAmerica's Heart & Soul--"Filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg packed up his camera and hit the road..."--what did you think? Did you think of suing Disney?

Mark Wojahn: Not really. I mean, there are some strong similarities between my film and [Schwartzberg's]: Both are the result of travels across America; both document the lives of real people. But what Schwartzberg--and his team of researchers--wanted to find are success stories: how people have triumphantly realized their dreams in the greatest country in the world. My movie is also a search for the "real America," you might say. But I wasn't just choosing champions. I wanted to talk to ordinary people on the street.

CP:Schwartzberg seems to want to avoid ordinary people.

Wojahn: He portrays this mission for poor people in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, but he doesn't characterize the ones who are being helped--only the preacher who's going to lift these miserable souls to a higher ground. He shows you a migrant farm, but he doesn't talk to the workers; he talks to their bosses.

CP:What did you make of that short scene with Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's tasting a new ice cream flavor in his kitchen?

Wojahn: It was short, that's for sure--probably because the editors cut out everything [Cohen] had to say about his company's progressive causes.

CP:But the ice cream looks amazing, right? I mean, Schwartzberg really captures the heart and soul of Cherry Garcia.

Wojahn: I feel like we just walked out of a 90-minute commercial--an advertisement for the American dream: working hard, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, not asking questions.

CP:It's the "inspirational" model of persuasion--a classic strategy of both right-wing Washington and mainstream Hollywood. You have not only the Boston Marathon athlete with cerebral palsy and the blind mountain climber, but all those shots of misty mountains and babbling brooks--there to convince us that this picture-postcard vision of America is the mostnatural thing in the world. What's unnatural is conflict: war, crime, poverty, racism, protest, pollution--even cities, for the most part. The movie is scrubbed clean.

Wojahn: It's "inspirational," yeah--and isolationist. The vast majority of people in this movie are shown thinking about themselves and their families--not about the rest of the world, about others who may be less fortunate. What's funny is that no one in the movie seems to realize that his own family isn't going to be happy if America isn't livable anymore.

CP:The people in the film have perfected the fine art of escapism. Nearly all of them talk about the magical quality of letting themselves tune out the world and enjoy what they do for a living. I suppose the ideal viewer of this movie will turn off his brain while watching it.

Wojahn: The cowboy who's interviewed at the beginning of the film says that as he gets older, he has a lot of questions--but he doesn't care about the answers.

CP:No wonder the John Mellencamp song in the movie is called "The World Don't Bother Me None."

Wojahn:The message is Don't worry, be happy--but the movie made me sad. I couldn't help thinking of the Door County laundromat owner I interviewed for my film. She said, "America is such a great country. Why is it going down the tubes?" Heart & Soul tries to pretend that America is working beautifully for everyone. It's not at all interested in trying to fix what's wrong. It doesn't even want to acknowledge that "America" isn't what it used to be.

CP:It really is the Hollywood version of a documentary: giving us the exception to the rule rather than the rule. Visually, it's the polar opposite of vérité. Every shot appears staged: carefully composed, perfectly lit, the subjects posing for the 35mm camera in front of golden sunsets.

Wojahn:I'll admit: It looks a lot prettier than my movie.

CP:You've talked a lot about the significance of shootingWhat America Needs on a consumer-model camcorder that you can get for two or three hundred bucks and hold in the palm of your hand. It's akin to what John Pierson was preaching in the '80s and '90s in terms of indie "empowerment"--praising movies such asClerks andShe's Gotta Have It, movies that try to show thatanyone can make a film.Heart & Soul, on the other hand, is the characteristic Disney movie:Only the wizards at our studio can conjure something this magical.

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