[4 July 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
The bottom line is that your country and you have to be on the same page where values are concerned, where principles are concerned, what you believe in.
—Zeenath Larsen (from Pakistan)
“About a month after I arrived, I saw a person walking his dog,” reports Hazem Taee. Coming from Iraq, he was surprised to see, in the America, that the dog wore socks and asked the owner why. “He said, ‘Because the pavement is hot.’ I said, ‘Wow, really? They care about animals to that degree, even their feelings.’”
Taee’s anecdote is both odd and, by the end of Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip, a little familiar. As he underscores the appeal of his new home—“I mean, many people would wish even to be an animal in the United States”—he also repeats a point made by interview subjects throughout this film, that Americans enjoy freedoms, opportunities, and comforts people in other parts of the world do not, and especially, that Americans don’t appreciate what they have.
Certainly, this story is one you’ve heard before: every Fourth of July holiday, local news stations send forth reporters in search of individuals with accents who extol the advantages of their adopted land. Preferably, they’ve just completed the citizenship process, and they’ve taken the oath along with a crowd of ecstatic new citizens, hands raised and eyes teary. ” I love this country to death,” says a man during Citizen U.S.A.‘s opening montage. “God bless America.”
The film, which airs this month on HBO, follows the pattern of Pelosi’s previous films, meaning that she narrates, asks questions, and lets some images or answers speak for themselves. This film is inspired, she says, by her Dutch-born husband Michiel’s experience: as he kisses his children and a Corn Flakes box, he declares his desire not to be a “foreigner in his own family.” In turn, Pelosi makes her own declaration, that with her film, she wants to “find out why so many people are willing to renounce their birth country and swear allegiance the United States.” For one thing, signs Andrew Grinberg, from Russia, “In America, they strive for removing barriers and discrimination of deaf individuals: we are given an equal opportunity.” And for another, asserts Harinderjit Ahluwalia, “Only in America” would he be able to make a living from selling cigarettes. He poses for a still shot, his arms spread wide before his store shelves, stocked with Marlboros and Lucky Strikes. “It was my… what do you call? My dream,” he smiles, “To go and settle to America.”
Asked to name their “favorite thing about America,” interviewees come up with a range of answers: “The 911,” says one woman, “Because you call and they come right away for your rescue.” Aeree Kim is happy to have the chance to go to school and buy a house. “Now I have student loans up to my eyeballs and I have a mortgage note,” she says, “but if I lived in Korea, I probably wouldn’t be able to afford a house.” So, observes Pelosi, “Debt is the best part about America?” Kim smiles, “Well, no, I mean that’s probably the worst part about my life. No one wants to have debt, but debt has given me stuff.”
Citizen U.S.A. is repeatedly complicated like this, as America’s freedoms can be unhealthy or imprudent. And sometimes, the documentary suggests, they are framed by absurdities. As hundreds of applicants line up at tables at a Walmart in California, they must answer questions like, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” or “Have you ever been a habitual drunkard?” When an elderly man is asked, “Have you ever sold your body for money?” Pelosi chimes in, from off-screen: “Really? You’re asking him about prostitution?”
Sometimes the irony is less cute than acute, as when Tommy Pilgrim proclaims the best thing about America: “The purchase of firearms, compared to Canada, was a real appeal to me… I really enjoy shooting sports.” Abdul Alijamal has another perspective on people with guns. “In Jordan,” he recalls, “There are checkpoints, so when you go out at night you have a pretty good chance you’re going to be stopped and questioned about from where are you coming where are you going, what are you doing? And in a way, that makes you feel like you’re a suspect.”
As Pelosi’s interviews with famous immigrants like Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright indicate, many seek relief from oppressive states. Hossein Alizadeh explains that he’s made his home in the U.S. “because I’m a gay man.” In Iran, he might have been jailed or worse for holding his boyfriend’s hand in public. And Raymond Fairweather of Jamaica has joined the U.S. military, he says, “Because it’s the best military in the world.” Pelosi leads him, “Where would the world be without the U.S. military?” his arm around his beaming wife, Fairweather doesn’t miss a beat when he answers, “I think, lost in chaos.” The film’s transition is equally smooth, as the soundtrack gives way to the anthem being sung at his citizenship ceremony—an overwhelmingly favorite choice at such events—“I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”
As happy-happy as so many interviewees sound, the documentary offers a couple of caveats. Interviewed as he is named a citizen, Javier Cabrera remembers that he came to America “by swimming crossing the border” from Mexico. Why did he swim across, Pelosi presses. “You gotta do what you gotta do to get over here,” he says. His wife smiles, “I crossed the border with no papers too.” And now they can be citizens, because of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986 and declaring that “anybody who came before 1981 was qualified to be a resident.” “We came to help this country,” the wife insists.
In Arizona, protestors are lined up outside the naturalization ceremony, asking that police “Stop racial profiling.” Inside, Pelosi asks Luis Nunez if he has sympathy for people who are “here illegally.” Of course, he says. “I was born to one of them and of course, it’s frightening for them. Arizona’s becoming a Nazi country, where all the Jews had to wear a tattoo on their arm or they had to carry some kind of identification at all times and if they didn’t, they would have got prosecuted or taken away. And it feels the same way right now.”
During this and a few other moments in Citizen U.S.A., the freedoms named and celebrated by so many new citizens are thrown into sharp relief. Such contradictions shape many American experiences, functions of fear and politics as often as they are functions of ideals. As the film’s “50 state road trip” reveals the multiplicity of these experiences, it shows as well that some “freedoms” have costs.