‘I am an American’ Filming the Fear of Difference
By Cynthia Weber
Intellect, Bristol. UK/ Chicago, 2011
Ten days after 9/11, the American Ad Council aired a public service announcement themed “I am an American,” which featured clips of Americans from a diverse set of ethnic groups and ages affirming their nationality. Given the atmosphere of fear-based patriotism, Cynthia Weber, a filmmaker and professor of international relations at Sussex University, recognized the complications and paradoxes behind this seemingly straightforward statement. So, she returned to the United States and began a series of film vignettes that delve into the complexities inherent in the statement. These films are now part of the permanent collection at the September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City and can also be viewed on YouTube as part of the Open Democracy website (www.youtube.com/user/opendemocracyteam). Her subsequently published book “‘I am an American,’ Filming the Fear of Difference” includes not only the stories of these 14 films but also her own reflections on the movies and the reactions of her various audiences, which were recorded on index cards as the show traveled the country. The collage narrative provides an engaging format for the multiplicity of her subject matter. Even those readers who suffer from post-9/11 fatigue will be drawn to these personal histories that have been shaped by the War on Terror.
The series begins in California with the proud and grateful Marine veteran Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Denogean, who was wounded in Iraq and then became the first immigrant to be fast-tracked to U.S. citizenship by President Bush. Jesus Suarez del Solar’s bitter experience, explored in the second story, sharply contrasts with Lupe’s fountain of gratitude. Born in Mexico, Jesus “dreamed of fighting the war on drugs because he saw how destructive they were in his community.” When a Marine recruiter promised Jesus that he could transfer to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency after two years in the military, Jesus’ father moved the family to California so that his son could finish high school and join the Marines. But in boot camp, Jesus realized that the recruiter had “lied”; he was thereafter sent to Iraq, where “he stepped on an unexploded U.S. cluster bomb and died.” Jesus’ grieving father founded “Guerro Azteca Por La Paz/Aztec Warrior Peace Project” to discourage other Hispanic youths from joining the military. The collection of 14 stories encompasses both the public and the private, ranging from vigilantes strutting America’s borders to activists motivated by parental love. As just a few examples, Weber’s penetrating camera follows Will Potter, a veteran who has sought asylum in Canada; the artist Steve Kurtz, who was “detained in suspicion of bioterrorism and murder after he called 911 to report the death of his wife”; a Muslim cleric enlisted in the U.S. Army; and the O’odham Native American, Ofelia Rivas. All of these victims of the War on Terror recount their stories of injustice with candor and good will. “‘I am an American,’ Filming the Fear of Difference” lucidly reveals the complexities and frequent injustices that for many have become part of being American. With its multiple narratives and diverse format, this book is an accessible read that lends itself to a variety of classroom research projects for students who want to learn about the ripple effects of our War on Terror.
This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 18, No. 66, 2012-'13.
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