The Listening Project

courtesy of Rikshaw Films

One of the most striking voices in The Listening Project comes from a woman in Juarez, Mexico, and could be the film's tag line: "Outside of the U.S. there is a whole world that needs to be listened to." The second documentary from Minneapolis production company Rikshaw Films chronicles the journeys of four American "listeners" as they gather global opinions about the United States. Directors Dominic Howes and Joel Weber got the idea while reflecting on time spent overseas, recalling encounters in which their American identity overshadowed all else. They recruited a poet, a seventh-grade history teacher, and a corrections officer, all from the Twin Cities, as well as a human-rights activist from New York, to pound the pavement in 14 countries and solicit ideas on the superpower. Among those weighing in are a Shanghai hip-hop DJ, an exiled Black Panther in Tanzania, impoverished farmers in India, and a widow in Afghanistan.

At turns moving, tragic, discomfiting, and funny, the vérité-style documentary alternates between person-on-the-street opinions and more in-depth examples of the U.S.'s impact on lives in other countries. Common themes emerge from interviewees: love-hate relationships with America and a feeling of being misunderstood by the U.S. "The Americans don't understand how we live, where we live," stresses a Palestinian woman, looking over her city. "It's high time they know more about us," says a South African woman. One of the best moments in the film happens when a circle of young people in Cape Town, South Africa, are given screen time to wage a passionate debate about the country. In the words of one of the young men: "The world is not about America, it's about where you are. You can create your own world." As if in response to his quote, a jubilant sequence of South African dance and drumming follows.

Between conversations, the 76-minute film also features images of urban and rural landscapes and people, with cinematography evocative of Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi. People are shown going to work, shopping, playing—participating in humanity's commonalities. The sequences seem to serve as a pause for rumination. Poignant and thought-provoking, the feature raises questions about what it means to be a citizen of the world. Longer segments with the speakers would have provided a more cohesive forum, however, as well as an understanding of the identities beyond the voices. Yet a thread of hope ties the film together, captured in a quote by an Afghan man: "Our people want to be friends with the American people."

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