Film note: Are we really “hated for our freedom”?

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Minneapolis residents Dominic Howes and Joel Weber, co-directors of The Listening Project, pose an urgent post-9/11 question: What does the world think of America? Traveling to 14 countries (including Africa, the UK, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, Mexico, India, and China), the answers they get are often contradictory and surprising. The film casts serious doubt on the Bush Administration’s assertion that we Americans are “hated for our freedom.”

The Listening Project, screening on 7:30 p.m. on August 28 as part of the Cinema of Urgency series at the Walker Art Center, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis. Admission free. For more information, see walkerart.org.


Howes and Weber pose their question through four unique American “listeners” on an international road trip. Bao Phi, the remarkable Minneapolitan spoken word artist, has been out of the U.S. except to revisit his Vietnamese birthplace. Carrie Lennox is an African-American history teacher. Bob Roeglin, a Baby Boomer probation officer, traveled extensively as a young man but faces post-9/11 fears. Roeglin and thirty-something Han Shan, a New York human rights activist recognizing his own ignorance about the rest of the world, are both white. Together, the four Americans provide a good balance of experience amidst a symphony of international voices.

What an amazing kaleidoscope this film is—from boomtown skyscrapers in Japan, India, and China to the slums of the world. The range of voices is remarkable. A Chinese rap artist, and a Paris street musician. Joyous South African youth dancers, people socializing in pubs in London and Canada, and tech workers in India. We hear from both Israelis and Palestinians, who have some unexpected things to say. Some of the most profound revelations come from the people the U.S. government says we “liberated” in Afghanistan and an undocumented immigrant who must return to Mexico to get a visa after he marries an American woman. An exiled American living in Tanzania voices concerns about the “American empire,” and many people mention their shock over the abandonment of Hurricane Katrina victims.


In a nutshell, people are inspired by American ideals and freedoms while being infuriated by U.S. foreign and economic policies.


What do people around the world see when they look at America? In a nutshell, people are inspired by American ideals and freedoms while being infuriated by U.S. foreign and economic policies. Some long to come here for “a better life,” while others steadfastly assert the primacy of their own country’s culture. There’s anger and there’s admiration.

What most surprised me is the distinction that even people in war-zones were able to make between the U.S. government that they raged against and the American people they felt connected to. Many call America “an empire in decline,” while a young Afghan man offers an alternative: ”Imagine what would happen if your people opened their hearts to the impact America has on the community—and that community is the whole world.”

The Listening Project is a beautifully crafted and vital mirror all of us need to look into. Even with the cacophony of voices, this is not a “taking head” movie at all, but an illuminating journey I hope many Americans will take.

Lydia Howell, a winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism, is a Minneapolis independent journalist writing for various newspapers and online journals. She produces and hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on KFAI Radio.

Cinema of Urgency in the Daily Planet:
Lydia Howell on The Judge and the General (July 24)
Cyn Collins on Flow: For Love of Water (August 1-3)
Cyn Collins on Secrecy (August 15-17)