Posted by the listening project on Saturday, December 3rd, 2005
(by Co-Directors Dominic Howes & Joel Weber)
View the video on the making of The Listening Project.
Civilizations, empires and nation states have come and gone for millennia but none before eclipse the massive economic, social and military power that the United States now wields. There are few people on earth who are not affected by this. With this in mind a central question emerges, “what do people think about the United States?”
In mid-2005 we were finishing our first documentary film, Awakening, about the emerging phenomenon of micro-credit. After two years of work in four countries on a shoestring budget, we were beginning to ruminate on what we would do next. Awakening had taken us into rural India and an Afghan war zone. As we worked through post production in the safe confines of our Minneapolis studio, a new conversation evolved in response to Executive Producer Jim Pohlad’s curiosity about current global opinion of the United States.
As a team, we’d been lucky enough to have spent significant time overseas and could recount many encounters in which our American identity overshadowed all else. Whether it was the time we spent in Afghanistan, visits to Europe or even a long-ago vacation to Mexico, we had often seen firsthand the deeply passionate feelings evoked by the mention of “America.”
Our conversation soon turned to brainstorming how we could explore this idea through documentary filmmaking. Like all Americans, we had our own feelings about the United States and its place in the world. We were much more interested in finding a way to create a platform for other people’s ideas around the world. As our friend Marcelo who we met during filming in Brazil said, “God has given you two ears and one mouth, to listen more than speak.” This was the ethic we tried to maintain with our film, The Listening Project.
The film was edited from over 300 hours of footage shot on location in fourteen countries. A wide-ranging group of people are portrayed, with myriad different views and ideas of the United States. Not surprisingly, we found that the relatively simple idea of “what people think of America” is in reality incredibly complex. Rarely were any of the responses to our questions cut-and-dried, but instead often thoughtful, personal, and contradictory. People’s views were often interwoven with the day-to-day reality of their own regional, political and social environments. We tried to avoid providing ready-made “answers” or thrusting a convenient narrative onto the many hours of footage we sorted through. Ultimately, we chose characters and subject matter that would provide both “person on the street” opinions and more in-depth examples of U.S. impact on peoples lives in other countries.
Visually, the film combines a cinema verité style with some journalistic qualities, such as enlisting four friends who we followed traveling and interacting with our subjects. However, our correspondents – or listeners as we like to call them – are not professional journalists, academics or experts on foreign policy. They are simply four Americans from different backgrounds with their own unique stories and perspectives. Besides providing a vehicle to help the viewer experience our global journey, the listeners also shaped the film through their interactions and perceptions. However, the emphasis always remains on the fascinating people we encountered everywhere we went.
Stylistically, we avoided making a traditional talking head-style documentary. Instead, the action unfolds in the homes, workplaces and communities of our subjects. By employing small cameras and a team never larger than four, we were able to be present in the moment with our characters. Rather than an obstacle, we found the camera to be a tool capable of capturing moments of true human vitality. Ultimately, our goal was to be reactive and observant, not controlling of every situation, and the scale of our production helped facilitate this.
A great emphasis was placed on the cinematography in an attempt to give a worthy depiction of the rich and diverse cultures of each location and to bring a sense of humanity to the film. Hours and hours were spent behind the camera, on street corners, in living rooms, and simply capturing the day-to-day rhythm of life.
We have portrayed numerous people and stories that simply aren’t found in the countless polls on global opinion of the United States. We hope that the film will engage viewers with the seemingly limitless ideas of what America means to people around the world. We hope that viewers will be moved by the engaging are left less fearful and more curious about the world around them. It is our ultimate hope that Americans who see this film will be compelled to ask themselves what it means to be a citizen not just of the U.S., but of the world.
Dominic Howes & Joel Weber
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