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Film Forward program reaches out to underserved areas, challenges stereotypes

By Mark Jenkins,

Lixin Fan, a Chinese-born director who maintains a part-time base in Montreal, is about to finally have his 2009 documentary, “Last Train Home,” released in his homeland. But some people in Beijing, Wuhan and Xi’an saw the acclaimed study of Chinese economic migrants last month, thanks to a U.S. government program, Film Forward.

“The first screening was amazing,” Lixin said by phone from China. “We showed it at the Beijing Film Academy to a group of young filmmakers.”

While Fan returned to the country of his birth, Nebraska-born Palestinian American director Cherien Dabis screened her “Amreeka” on a Film Forward trip to Turkey. “What struck me the most was the depth of people’s questions,” she recalled. “They were questions that I had never gotten before.”

Her film, a semi-autobiographical tale of Palestinian immigrants in an unwelcoming Midwest, resonated with Kurds and other minorities in Turkey. “I think they were appreciative that they got to see the United States from a different perspective, and a perspective that they could really relate to,” Dabis said of the February screenings.

Perhaps the most electric of Film Forward’s programs was its December trip to Tunisia, where director Stanley Nelson presented “Freedom Riders,” his documentary about the early-1960s U.S. civil rights movement.

“We showed ‘Freedom Riders’ in Tunisia to 300 university students two weeks before the Jasmine Revolution,” said Rachel Goslins, executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. “That Q and A was apparently quite intense. We’re not taking credit for the Jasmine Revolution, but it was a very timely place to have that conversation.”

Film Forward is a new collaboration involving the PCAH, Sundance Institute and three other federal agencies: the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. (Sundance picks up about a third of the $650,000 budget; the government pays the rest.) From 30 possibilities offered by Sundance, the federal partners picked 10 recent films — five American independent and five foreign — to screen around the world. On Thursday, it will show all 10 in a “gala showcase” at locations along or near the Mall.

The movies are not the sort that have multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns, but not all of then are obscure. They include an Oscar nominee, Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone.”

Such films have “the ability to challenge stereotypes,” said PCAH Co-Chairman Margo Lion, a Broadway producer, “and to provoke the kind of dialogue that really does change minds.”

Several directors are scheduled to attend, as are Hollywood luminaries such as Sundance founder Robert Redford; PCAH board members Forrest Whitaker and Kerry Washington; and “La Mission” star Benjamin Bratt.

One goal of Film Forward is to reach “underserved” audiences, both overseas and in such domestic locations as the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Reservation. Washington doesn’t qualify, but “the idea that we would get these filmmakers to China, but not give them a forum in D.C. . . . seemed silly to us,” Goslins said.

Showing the movies in Washington, Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam noted, is also designed to show that “storytelling can play a really powerful role in cultural diplomacy and in breaking down boundaries between people.”

Although Film Forward avoids movies that Goslins terms “overtly political,” the program emphasizes cross-cultural conversation and universal understanding. For Dabis, that led to an unnerving moment.

In Ankara, one viewer who seemed to like “Amreeka” called it “propaganda.”

“It was an interesting moment for me, because as a filmmaker you think of propaganda as having a negative connotation,” she said. “But what I came to realize was he meant the film was humanist propaganda.”

Jenkins is a freelance writer.

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