‘Selling Democracy’ shows the power of international cooperation

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Debates about “bringing democracy” to Arab countries make it a perfect
timing for Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan 1948-1953.
Part of “de-Nazification” while rebuilding war-torn Europe after WWII,
these U.S. government-sponsored films were buried for almost 60 years,
screening Wednesday, April 5, through Saturday, April 8, at Walker Art Center.

“Developed by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, it was true
partnership. Marshall said, ‘The business of building Europe is the
business of Europeans. All the U.S. can do is lend a hand.’ The
Europeans developed agencies of their own,which planned the rebuilding,
deciding how money got divided. Ultimately, these agencies became the
European Union and the Common Market,” observes Sandra Schulberg,
co-curator of the series. “These films are so relevant. The challenges
are so similar to what we face now. It’s a rare opportunity to see how
we handled it once before.”

Her father, Stuart Schulberg, headed the Film Division of the Marshall
Plan. Unlike current media campaigns in the Middle East, most
film-makers in Selling Democracy were European. Another contrast to contemporary reconstruction in Iraq via Halliburton and American
contract employees, was that Europeans were re-employed rebuilding
their homes and industries. In our outsourced age, the ‘triumphant
labor” images permeating many of this films create edgy nostalgia.

“Many of the people making these films were left-leaning, with socialist
views or had respect for the working-class,” Schulberg said, noting that
after the invasion of Korea in June 1950, co-operative internationalism
increasinly gave way to anti-communist re-miliarization. “There’s a wide
spectrum of films: straightforward, technical assistance. Docudramas
instilled hope about the future. Satire. Even fiction and animation.
They were aware that they had to make them entertaining.”

Each night offerings has a different theme and includes post-screening
discussion led by various scholars of European history and politics.
Here’s this writer’s favorites:

Out of the Ruins, Wednesday, April 5, exposes war’s destruction
timelessly. Hunger is elegiac images of suffering across the
continent. The Cannes-prize-winning Houen Zo shows Rotterdam,
destroyed and rising from the rubble. Life and Death of a Cave City is a rare color film, set in Italy. Intimations of the Cold War appear in
The Bridge as the U.S. Air Force airlifts aid to West Berlin when the
U.S.S.R. blocks all roads.

Help Is On The Way, Thursday,April 6, is a tour of American can-do
spirit collaborating with 17 European nations and the city-state of
Trieste. Mixing charm and practicality, one feels pride (mingled with
loss) for what America meant in post-war Europe.

True Fiction, Friday, April 7, breaks off from dcuemtnary with
dramas and comedy. The Smiths and the Robinsons is an amusing look at the British class system in the post-WWII continued rationing of meat, TVs and cars. Its envious “consumer competition” is recognizable (in
magnified form) today. Aquilla, the struggles of one unemployed
husband and father, is a magnificient example of early Italian
“neo-realism”, that flowered in the 1950s with giants like di Sicca. Its
black-and-white images resonate with feeling.

Strength for the Free World, Saturday, April 8, plunges into Cold War
propaganda, with surprisingly artistic anti-communism. Made by the
Mutual Security Agency, Cold War absurdity appears in films like Do Not Disturb. A satirical sendup of Communist critique of Western
consuermism, this short film simutaneously sells American products as
the ultimate “good life”. Whitsun Holiday treads similar ground,
comparing how Western (capitalist) and Eastern (communist) citizens
spend vacation. Hilariously hamfisted, it’s hard to imagine anyone being
convinced by these films. Hour of Choice, mixing film and animation,
attains real art in its clarion call to ‘choose sides” in the intensifying battle with the U.S.S.R. Democracy is represented in watercolored pastoral scenes that clash with ominously expressionist communism, as gorgeous as todays’ computered-generated animation.

“What does Selling Democracy say about what’s going on today? I wish we were empowering people in Iraq and Afghanistan to tell their own
stories. This was actually a mini-Marshall Plan for European
filmmakers, who went on to have careers in film and television,”
Schulberg says. Her father was trilingual and educated in Europe, unlike
Bush’s fellow Texan Karen Hughes, leading public relations efforts to
“improve America’s image” in the Middle East. She underscores the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., created in gratitude for America’s aiding
European recovery, funds cross-cultural exchanges 60 years later,
including this film series.

“We got it right once [with the Marshall Plan]. Americans can see that
program was well-designed to benefit all sides. George Marshall had a
broad vision and rose above national borders, people in partnership with
the same struggle to have a decent life— the same struggle we see
today,” Schulberg said, sounding wistfull. “We can be so heavy-footed! But, we can also act with grace and intelligence, in partnership, without
imposing the American viewpoint. The Marshall Plan was all about dialogue.”

Hear Sandra Schulberg, on KFAI’s “Catalyst” (3/21) archived www.kfai.org.

Selling Democracy, $8 gen/$6 Walker members, Wed. April 5 through Sat. April 8, 7pm, Walker Art Ctr., 1750 Hennepin Ave. (next to Sculpture Garden), Minneapolis, (612)375-7600 www.walkerart.org.

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