Tajikistan – Day One – Cultural Exchanges and Teahouses

Everything in Tajikistan is very slow.

I arrive in Dushanbe at 3:20 am Monday morning. A missed connection, an overnight stay in Frankfurt, and a whole lot of jet lag leaves me pretty groggy.
I shuffle into border control and spend the next 20 minutes trying to get processed. The visa office is a long rectangular room lined with chairs, no discernible line or instructions, and two very indifferent low level paper pushers. It all feels very Soviet. Nobody seems to know what to do and everyone gets pretty irritated.

Thankfully the Embassy has arranged for an “Expediter” to meet me. In essence an Expediter is a local who knows his way around the customs office and guides you through the process. And by “guide you through the process” I mean he helps you cut the line. I get a few dirty looks but at am eager to get out of there. If you ever get to Tajikistan, hire an expediter – it’ll cost you 20 bucks and its worth every penny.

Damian meets me outside the Customs building and takes me to a hotel to relax for a few hours before we begin our day. Damian is the Information Officer at the US Embassy and is the reason I’m in Tajikistan. The American Documentary Showcase sends out a cable to American embassies across the world and its people like Damien who select which films go to respective countries. I sat down with Damien to talk about cultural exchanges, the Showcase, and what he hopes to accomplish. (He speaks directly about the Documentary Showcase at 5:42)

US Cultural Exchange in Tajikistan from dcdocumentary on Vimeo.

Judy Irola has already flown to Khujund and will handle the first day of events on her own. For my part, I head to the hotel to get cleaned up.

I wake up after a few hours of sleep and begin to explore my surroundings. In the early morning light, the hotel grounds are stunning. Dushanbe has an extensive irrigation system so there’s a lot of greenery in the nicer parts of town. Mixed in amongst the landscape is a particular style of Soviet architecture – some in use, some decaying after years of none use. As I stumble around I come across a decaying Teahouse with a beautiful ornate ceiling. Its a shame the building has fallen into disrepair but I’ve been told it will be restored.

Here’s a quick video.

Morning In Dushanbe from dcdocumentary on Vimeo.

American Documentary Showcase

Last year Ian Cook and I finished a short documentary called Corner Plot.

The film explores the life and work of Charlie Koiner, a 90 year old man who tends to an urban farm in downtown Silver Spring. Check our our website for more info: http://www.cornerplotmovie.com

We submitted Corner Plot to a whole whack of film festivals and one very special program run by the State Department: the American Documentary Showcase. The Showcase is part of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs – a branch of State Department dedicated to “advancing U.S. foreign policy objectives through educational and cultural programs that enhance mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of other nations”

Click on the following link for a write up in the NY Times about the program: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/16/movies/16docs.html

It sounds very official but what it boils down is this: Once a year the State Department sends independent documentary films – and their creators – abroad to educate and inform on “the American Way of Life”. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing, a very good thing.

Documentaries have always been powerful tools of propaganda. In the 30s American documentaries were political pieces created to sell Americans on the New Deal polices of the Roosevelt Administration. In Britain John Grierson was creating documentaries to appease class tensions and propagate a unified United Kingdom. Canada went so far as to create the National Film Board, an organization explicitly created to foster a sense of national identity in a new and culturally unsure nation.

But times have changed. For better or for worse an entire genre of documentaries have become accessible to a wide swath of the population. Lower cost production technology has created new opportunities for more diverse stories and storytellers. The beauty of the American Documentary Showcase is that it culls the very best of documentary film and promotes a diverse body of work that illuminates the American experience from many perspectives. And many of those documentaries are pretty critical of the US. I think the idea is that by having the State Department promote documentaries that shows warts and all – we demonstrate what a free and open society we really are. That is a powerful message in countries with limited freedoms.

We’ve come a long way.

I’ve had the opportunity to screen some excellent Showcase films.

Click on the following links for more info on some of my favorites: