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'Selling Democracy,' Marshall Plan in Miniature

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 10, 2005; Page N10

On the heels of stories involving the appointment of Karen Hughes as a State Department undersecretary in charge of improving the U.S. image in the Middle East, as well as government-funded press releases masquerading as news stories, the timing for "Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan 1948-1953" could not be better.

Twenty-five of the 250 short films made under the auspices of the Marshall Plan's motion picture unit and the U.S. Office of Military Government will be shown between April 15-18, organized into four programs. Curated by Sandra Schulberg, whose father, Stuart, was one of the chiefs of the motion picture unit, the series demonstrates the power of propaganda and even its artistry, when it's done right.

A poster from one of the short films made for European consumption from 1948 to 1953. (Schulberg Productions Via Filmfest Dc)

"The Marshall Plan was predicated on really respecting the autonomy of these various recipient nations and forcing them, in fact, to get together and decide collectively who was to receive how much aid and for what," Schulberg says, an ethos that was reflected in the motion picture unit, which gave directors virtually free rein in deciding the form and content of their films. "They hired European filmmakers to make films that would communicate to other Europeans," says Schulberg, "not films made in Washington 3,000 miles away."

The directors, several of whom went on to have successful careers, made animated films, documentaries, docudramas and full-blown short features, each reflecting postwar efforts in Europe to recover after devastating physical, economic, political and psychic losses. They deal with issues from marshland recovery in the Netherlands to rice farming in southern France, from the supply chain of a quart of milk to the trials and tribulations of a young farmer trying to increase egg production. They convey a sense of irony and sophistication that is surprising, considering that they were government-sponsored. "The reason I think they're worth showing, apart from their political relevance, is that the films themselves are extraordinarily artful," says Schulberg.

Ironically, the Marshall Plan films have been unavailable for public viewing for years, in large part due to an obscure 1948 law forbidding the U.S. government to propagandize its own citizens. Although legislation passed in 1990 loosened those strictures, the films, located in the National Archives, have still been difficult for general viewers to see.

Filmfest DC will present "Help Is on the Way," a collection of seven short films, Friday at 6:30 p.m. at Regal Cinema, 707 Seventh St., NW. Admission is $9. Call 703-218-6500 or visit www.tickets.com. The three other "Selling Democracy" programs will be shown Friday at 3 p.m., Saturday at 7 p.m. and April 18 at 7 p.m. at the Goethe Institut, 812 Seventh St., NW. Tickets are $6 ($4 for members, seniors and students). Visit the institute's box office or www.boxofficetickets.com.

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