– The French (and Others) Fry Americans in a Documentary Full of Insight and Humor –
Why does Europe hate us?
It’s a question that comes to mind for many Americans when they see French farmers attacking McDonald’s outlets or read opinion polls proclaiming that one out of two Europeans sees America as playing a mainly negative role in the world. “The Anti-Americans” not only explores this pointed query with disarming humor, but also provides powerful insight, told from the “other” point of view.
“The Anti-Americans (a hate/love relationship)” is a whimsical yet serious look at the estrangement between Europeans and Americans, especially in the era of the Iraq war. The documentary travels to Ireland, France, Poland and Great Britain to examine the thesis that each country responds to American culture and society in a unique way, based on its own cultural needs, history and prejudices. “The Anti-Americans” airs Monday, August 27, 2007, 10:00-11:00 p.m. ET (check local listings) on PBS.
“The Anti-Americans” is one of the wide array of documentaries commissioned as part of the celebrated AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS series. This initiative, created by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and produced under the aegis of WETA Washington, DC, was designed to create an in-depth, provocative series of films exploring the challenges confronting the world post-9/11. The first 11 films in the series aired on PBS April 15-20; “Kansas to Kandahar” aired in June.
“The Anti-Americans (a hate/love relationship)” is a telling travelogue. In each country the film visits, viewers get a taste of the resentment many Europeans feel for the American goliath. In Dublin, the Irish capital, America, much to the delight of a night club audience, is the target of an inspired pair of Irish rappers called White Cholera. The scene sets the tone; America is to be sneered at, laughed at and feared.
Perhaps no European country inspires more anger among Americans than France, and the film demonstrates that the feeling is mutual. At the studios of Les Guignols de l’Info (News Puppets), viewers meet what has become for many French the embodiment of American might and attitudes — a series of Sylvester Stallone puppets (les Slys), which display all the arrogance, ignorance and bluster that the French assign to their Yankee allies. These puppets represent the reach of American power — economically, militarily, even religiously.
To the French, the American dominance even extends to their beloved tongue. There are 19 committees within the government’s Ministry of Culture charged with crafting French words for English terms. The film takes viewers to a remarkable meeting of one of these panels as they discuss the merits — or, as they see it, lunacy — of the term “airbag.”
What the French call joie de vivre Americans view as a lack of drive and ambition. This conflict becomes clear in the small southern French town of Montauban, where the barbs are sharp and the anxieties heartfelt, all brought on in large measure by the American behemoth that is our popular culture, often represented by McDonald’s golden arches.
Yet the idealized French image of their lives is dashed in the housing projects that surround the country’s major cities. Here immigrant youths struggle to break into what they view as a closed society. “The Anti-Americans” vists with a group of aspiring rappers, Grand Boulevard, who feel that America offers opportunity for all.
French commentator Clotaire Rapaille sums it up: “The key for the French is very simple: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ Not ‘I do, therefore I am.’ … So the French think, and they think they think for the rest of the world. And there is one thing that they are absolutely sure [of]: the Americans don’t think.”
Are Franco-American relations salvageable? One would think not after a visit to Lycee Henri IV, an exclusive Parisian school where future French leaders are educated. The children are asked to draw their image of America — and it’s not pretty. One young girl puts it succinctly: Americans “are massacring the planet.”
But Americans have friends in Poland, right? Maybe. Many Poles view the United States as their protector after the horrific Nazi occupation that was followed by a half-century of communism under the Soviet thumb. The film features a number of Poles who have a genuine affection for America, including Michael Lonstar, a leading Polish country-western singer. Lonstar has brought the image of the country musician to life, dressing like a contemporary cowboy and orchestrating a dance troupe named “Sexy Texas.” But while Americans may be amused, Lonstar speaks poignantly about how American music and imagery helped him and his countrymen through the bleak years of communism.
At Piknik Country, one of the oldest and largest country music festivals in Eastern Europe, viewers learn of one of the obstacles to real harmony between Poland and the United States: the American visa policy. A limited number of visas for Poles may be seen as wise management by the State Department, but it is an insult to the Poles, longstanding allies who were even part of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.
A pair of opinionated Warsaw taxi drivers provide real insight. On a tour of their city, they point out numerous projects made possible by foreign capital, mostly American. To them, it is merely the latest chapter in a centuries-old story of the foreign invasion of Poland.
The final stop on “The Anti-Americans”’ magical whimsical tour is Great Britain, the mother country and an empire that handed off power to the United States 60 years ago. Our respective governments have proclaimed the “special relationship” between America and Britain, and the Brits have embraced this idea throughout their society. Yet British citizens are constantly brought up short when Americans seem totally unfamiliar with the concept.
Britons — especially intellectuals and commentators — revel in pointing out the weirder extremes of American life. They also feel far superior to Americans — more gracious, more intelligent, less brash. A group of British teenagers is asked to spout what an American would say in London. “Omigod!” seems to be the extent of the American discourse.
The British fascination with American zaniness and lack of taste comes together in Jerry Springer: The Opera. A hit in London’s West End, the production encompasses all the ridiculousness and profanity of a typical Springer show, including a KKK chorus line and fat men dressed as babies. “The Anti-Americans” includes excerpts from the opera and illuminating interviews with the show’s creators.
As journalist and scholar Tony Judt said, “America is so present in everyone’s lives, so present in everyone’s minds, in their references. Everyone wants to be American without losing the right to say that America is misbehaving. So there’s this sort of permanent love/hate relationship.”
The film suggests that, while opinions wax and wane, underneath it all are some fundamentally unvarying attitudes toward the U.S., often based on Europe’s own psychological and political needs. Clearly, the transatlantic conversation will continue to be shocking and amusing for some time to come.
CPB developed the initial concept for AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS in 2004 with an open call for film projects. More than 400 proposals were submitted from public television stations and independent documentary filmmakers around the world. In 2006, CPB named WETA the producing station to oversee all films throughout production. “The Anti-Americans” is part of an anticipated series of specials following the premiere week of AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS.
Underwriter: Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Producers: Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker and Peter Odabashian. Series executive producers: Jeff Bieber and Dalton Delan. Series producer: Leo Eaton. Associate producer: Marjolaine Souquet. Format: CC Stereo DVI Letterbox. Online: pbs.org
– PBS –
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■ AMERICA AT A CROSSROADS’ interactive Web site is located at pbs.org/crossroads.