The Power of Film to Encourage Cultural Dialogue

Posted by Jonathan Lewis, May 09, 2011 1 comment

Jonathan Lewis

On May 12, Washington, D.C., will be treated to an unprecedented collaboration between arts institutions and filmmakers. Museums along the National Mall will be showcasing five international films and five American films as part of Film Forward: Advancing Cultural Dialogue.

This will also mark the first joint public-private partnership between the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, the Sundance Institute, the Smithsonian, the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Film Forward is a cultural exchange program designed to foster international exchange through film screenings followed by interactive discussions between the audience and the filmmakers. As an art form, film has the ability to communicate the human condition across all languages and cultural barriers. However, what makes this film showcase very special is that the filmmakers themselves have traveled with their films to under-served communities in the United States and across the world. 

After presenting their work, the filmmakers engage in question-and-answer sessions and participate in meaningful one-on-one discussions, panels, master classes, and workshops. It is this additional element that has allowed diverse audiences to share their impressions and feelings after watching the films, and to draw comparisons between the cultural experiences of the main characters and their own. As one might expect, the results have been fascinating.

For example, when the film Amreeka was screened in cities across Turkey, filmmaker Cherien Dabis discovered that the audience was particularly interested in how the American media portrays Arab-Americans and other minorities. When the same film was shown in Tunisia, audience members revealed to Producer Alicia Sams how the immigrant experience portrayed in the film echoes what they encounter in their own lives.

After watching the film Afghan Star in Turkey, Director Havana Marking started a dialogue with the audience where they drew comparisons between social change in Afghanistan and in Turkey, and the Civil Rights movement in the United States in the 1950s.

In Nashville, Tennessee, Producer Isabelle Stead’s Son of Babylon brought a large audience from the city’s Iraqi and Kurdish residents who had a strong emotional response to the film. Meanwhile, members of Nashville’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community attended Peter Bratt’s La Mission. The film was followed by a moving discussion with Bratt, in which audience members revealed personal stories about how their family’s struggle to accept their homosexuality was similar to what was experienced by the main characters in the film.

When The Last Train Home screened in China, Director Lixin Fan engaged in an emotional debate with audience members over whether or not the film was made for a Western audience. Even the debate itself represented an unprecedented cross-cultural dialogue, as audience members who disagreed with the film’s portrayal of working conditions in China nevertheless identified with the film’s characters and the migrant worker experience.

This Thursday’s event in particular will be a milestone for Film Forward, as museums all across the National Mall will be participating in the showcase.

In particular, it will be interesting to see how D.C.’s diverse audiences will respond to ten unique, award-winning films, and what topics will emerge in the subsequent conversations with the filmmakers.

Nine of the ten filmmakers will be in attendance, including Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), Stanley Nelson (Freedom Riders), Jennifer Arnold (A Small Act), Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan), Taika Waititi (Boy), and Mohamed Al-Daradji (Son of Babylon).

There will also be amazing opportunities to hear from NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, the Sundance Institute’s Executive Director Keri Putnam, and Sundance’s Director of Festival Programming, John Cooper, as well as actors Alfre Woodard and Kerry Washington, and many more.

I encourage everyone who can to attend these events – both in D.C. and across the country - and I hope that arts institutions will continue to collaborate and produce new events that foster cultural dialogue.

For more information about the event on Thursday, please visit:

1 responses for The Power of Film to Encourage Cultural Dialogue


Scott says
May 16, 2011 at 6:28 am
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