In summer 2004, John Sayles, one of America’s most celebrated independent filmmakers, was about to release his 15th feature film, SILVER CITY, a tale of a corrupt candidate for governor. “Do we expect our candidates to actually be people who know anything, who can govern, who have a vision, who know that Africa is not a country?” he asks. “Or do we expect them to just be mascots for the people who are really running things?”
Jehane Noujaim’s controversial documentary Control Room”about Al-Jazeera called into question the prevailing images and positions offered up by the US news media about the Iraq war and explores whether the US is radicalizing or stabilizing the Arab world. “If we become this close-minded place here, where we don’t understand other cultures, what’s happening outside of our borders is affecting the rest of the world, I think that’s extremely dangerous for us,” she says. Jehane Noujaim began as a photographer and filmmaker in Cairo, Egypt, where she grew up. Noujaim has produced for the MTV documentary series, UNFILTERED, as well as produced and directed STARTUP.COM, the feature length, highly acclaimed documentary which has won numerous distinguished awards including the DGA and IDA Awards for best documentary.
Activist, poet, and playwright, Sarah Jones is currently starring in BRIDGE & TUNNEL, a one-woman show about the experiences of fourteen immigrants traveling the roads of assimilation and revealing the story of an often unseen America. The show has received numerous accolades, including the Obie Award, Theatre World Award and Drama League Award. Her three previous solo shows, SURFACE TRANSIT, WOMEN CAN’T WAIT, and WAKING THE AMERICAN DREAM have garnered numerous honors including a Helen Hayes Award and HBO’s Aspen Comedy Arts Festival’s Best One Person Show Award. Jones’ shows have been presented for such audiences as the United Nations, the Supreme Court of Nepal, and members of the US Congress.
BRANCACCIO: Tonight on NOW, artists and truth-telling.
Welcome to NOW. Tonight we’ve gathered three original thinkers to talk about what we want from our politicians, our duty as citizens, and some ways to move forward together as a country.
All three are artists, working in film, TV and theater. Each of these guests has a unique vision of how political decisions shape our lives.
We started thinking about this project after Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11 became such a hit. The documentary tapped into a hunger for vivid, alternative points of view. Moore’s theme is the abuse of power by those in government and business.
But how exactly is power accumulated? And how do you connect the dots between power, information, citizen involvement and action?
Each of the three people you’ll hear from tonight has a different answer. We begin with the independent filmmaker John Sayles whose work focuses on regular people dealing with big problems: RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS SEVEN, LONE STAR (for which he was nominated for an Oscar), SUNSHINE STATE and next month a new movie starring Chris Cooper, Danny Houston and Richard Dreyfus. It’s called SILVER CITY. The subject: politics, deception and greed. We’re not reviewing a movie here, but using Sayles’ film as a jumping-off point to get to his bigger ideas. So here’s some of the context of this film noir satire set during a governor’s race in Colorado.
The candidate is the scion of a prominent political family named Pilager. Dickie Pilager’s campaign slogan is “Honesty. Integrity. Articulacy,” as you’ll see in this scene where Dickie — played by Cooper — meets the press.
[BEGIN VIDEO CLIP]
DICKIE PILAGER: We have to get our priorities straight. Education is a priority. Health care is a priority. Our economy is a priority. The environmental— the whole environmental arena, that’s a priority, a big priority. Building new roads and maintaining the prisons and keeping the infrastructure in place where it belongs, that’s a priority.
FEMALE REPORTER: What isn’t a priority, sir?
DICKIE PILAGER: What’s not a priority?
FEMALE REPORTER: Yeah.
DICKIE PILAGER: Is those matters which are of less of a— not that they’re not important, but if you’re gonna have a front burner, which is where you want your priorities, it’s like cooking. There needs to be something sittin’ on the back one. And that’s where your other organizations, your church people and your organizations formed to help these things will be happy to pitch in if only government would get out of their way.
CHUCK RAVEN: No, no. Press conference is at 2 o’clock, people. It’s no fair trying to kidnap the candidate when we’re late for a meeting.
BRANCACCIO: Well, let’s see. He’s not Truman-esque.
BRANCACCIO: He doesn’t seem to be like Ike.
BRANCACCIO: You chose a politician that’s quite recognizable I think—
SAYLES: This is not the most important thing about this candidate. But I wanted to make sure people could draw that line between this candidate and George Bush, especially early when he was running for governor of Texas. One of the arcs in SILVER CITY is the arc of this character that Chris Cooper plays, which is of a candidate being groomed and learning his job, which is, if you’re not good at something, don’t do it.
So, he’s not good at speaking off the cuff. By the end of the movie, he’s on the script. And he knows that he really shouldn’t wander off it.
Because he can’t keep his political clich—s straight, even to the end of one sentence. And because he finally realizes, you know, it feel betters when I stay on the message and the message is written down for me.
And, I don’t get ambushed. And that’s what you see. Unfortunately, with most of our, you know, politicians is that we have this little brief honeymoon of a period when we have the ability to actually ask them a question. And they actually have to answer it. And it may not be the perfect, they actually have to do a debate.
But the minute they’re in power, they really can retreat. They really can take umbrage, if you ask them an honest question.
BRANCACCIO: But it’s interesting looking at the Dickie Pilager character, he’s not really the villain of your piece.
SAYLES: No, I think if there is a villain, it’s a system. And there are some people who play that system better than other people and play it more cynically than other people. But one of the things that I thought about is this idea that we can kind of breeze along thinking that things just happen.
That, well, that’s too bad. And that just happened. And that certain social phenomenon are like gravity. Or you know water is wet. When, in fact, they were constructed. And they were constructed by highly-planned campaigns of disinformation and influence-buying.
And you know the main metaphor in SILVER CITY is that the main character, Danny O’Brien, this Detective, connects the dots. He begins to say, “Oh, this thing leads to this thing. And this leads to this thing and this leads to this thing.”
And that’s politics.
BRANCACCIO: Let’s talk more about “connecting the dots.”
BRANCACCIO: There’s a key scene in the movie, Kris Kristofferson plays a corporate interest.
BRANCACCIO: Who does he play?
SAYLES: He plays a character named Wes Benteen. And Wes Benteen is a guy who— his corporations, you know, cover everything. You know he’s got cattle, he’s got media, he’s got medical. So almost any regulatory bill that comes up has something to do with one of his industries.
I’d say he’s kind of an old-fashioned robber-baron type guy. And really feels like what vision is, is only few people have it. Democracy is something that you have to give lip service to, to keep the people off your back. But you know given free reign, the people are gonna make a mess of things.
He feels like land is there to exploit and that the smart people know how to exploit it well. And that everything else is really just kind of lip service to something that gets in the way of progress, as he sees it.
BRANCACCIO: And he’s paid for about half of this gubernatorial campaign by—
SAYLES: Yeah, and he’s done it in various ways. You know there are ways around even good campaign finance reform. And you know, he finds the loopholes.
BRANCACCIO: And if you’re paying for half a campaign, you do at least get a chance for a nice heart-to-heart chat with the candidate, as we see in this scene.
[BEGIN VIDEO CLIP]
WES BENTEEN: Take a good look Dickie, what do you see?
DICKIE PILAGER: Mountains?
WES BENTEEN: I see a big sign that says no Americans allowed.
DICKIE PILAGER: You do?
WES BENTEEN: You look at a map. They got half the west under lock and key.
DICKIE PILAGER: They?
WES BENTEEN: The Bureau of Land Management. Forest Service. National Parks. The State.
DICKIE PILAGER: Right, right.
WES BENTEEN: It’s like a treasure chest waiting to be opened. Only there’s a 500 pound bureaucrat sitting on it.
DICKIE PILAGER: Well, I’m a small government man.
WES BENTEEN: That’s why we chose you, son.
SAYLES: One of the things that this scene brings up is a question for all of us which is, “do we expect our candidates, do we expect our public officials, especially on these higher levels to actually be people who know anything, who can govern, who have a vision, who know that Africa is not a country?
Or do we expect them to just be mascots for the people who are really running things? And that’s a real question for us. Do we accept that or do we actually want somebody who could write a bill, who, you know, understands the complexities of complex things?
Or do we want somebody who says, “Oh, no, they’re not complex, they’re actually simple”? And I think as a society, if you look at the politicians and you look at, you know, some of the big things that have been going on in our country politically and socially in the last, you know, 20 or 30 years, the answer is often we want somebody to lie to us.
You know, and the basic lie is, “This is very simple. This is not complex. You know if we only do this one thing, everything will be okay.”
BRANCACCIO: We, in a sense, know the answer to which way the American public comes down on this. Minnesotans elected a wrestler.
BRANCACCIO: Californians elected a muscle man.
BRANCACCIO: There seems to be an acceptance that it’s really some sort of bigger apparatus that gets policy done, and the person at the top, may not, in fact, have the hands-on abilities.
SAYLES: Yeah. And is a front of some sort. And represents something. But the thing is, that very often they’re not representing a policy. In fact, they actually try not to be too articulate about what exactly they’re going to do when they go in. They try to represent some basic value.
So if you vote for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, you know, who knows? The jury is still out on how he’s going to be as a Governor. You’re voting partly for a guy who is the hero, who comes in and saves the day. Ronald Reagan was the genial old grandfather type. You know, who said, you know, was the guy who, they play pretty music in the background and he, you know, explains it all for you in really kind of bedrock, simple ways.
To a certain extent, we’re a society who like that. We, you know we like things to be smoothed over.
But I do think that if you continue to vote those people into office, if you continue to tell lies to yourself, some day you have to pay. We, you know, the debt that Ronald Reagan’s, you know, regime, you know, racked up, we had to pay that eventually. You know, we have a new one. We’ll have to pay that eventually. You know.
And it’s not just the money that you have to make, it’s the services that you lose. It’s the educations that don’t happen. It’s the, you know, medical care that doesn’t happen.
BRANCACCIO: You know, I think that’s the key issue in this conversation. Which is, the American public, do they sense that there’s something amiss or do you see sort of a widespread acceptance that this is the system? And there’s really nothing much a regular person can do. You have a lot of regular people in this film.
BRANCACCIO: Sort of caught up in the altered morality foisted on the movie by guys like Wes Benteen, the tycoon.
SAYLES: Uh-huh. Well, I think you see two responses. One is the response of the main character played by Danny Huston at the beginning. He’s gotten kind of cynical and kind of apathetic. He’s somebody whose been burned a couple of times. He was an activist. He was a serious journalist. And it didn’t work out for him.
And so he’s decided, “Okay, it doesn’t matter whether I’m working for the good guys or the bad guys. I’m just gonna get paid.” But then there’s this other thing where people who think that something is seriously wrong, but they don’t know what the problem is.
You know, is it the international Jewish conspiracy? Is it the black people are getting everything? Is it the black helicopters? Is it, you know, Satan at work. Is it gay marriage that’s causing all these problems? They know something is wrong, and they can’t connect the dots.
And part of the reason that they can’t connect the dots is because this possibility of journalism. You know, we’re wasting it. You know that not enough people are doing the hard work. And you have to have some courage to do it. You have to have courage as a publisher. You have to have courage as an editor. You have to have courage as a journalist to say, “No. This is what happened. And this is the story. And I’m gonna stick by this story and fight it out every day.”
BRANCACCIO: What do you think accounts for modern day journalism’s lack of spine when it comes to trying to put its finger and identify what’s actually true coming out of a politician’s mouth?
SAYLES: Well, some of it is that some of the networks, the whole networks are not really journalists. They’re publicists. You know. And once again, some people are trying to do a little bit more than that. And there is a lot of risk management. Their lawyers say, “We can’t go out on our, you know, a limb on this thing, yet.” Sometimes it’s just well, we, you know wait for somebody else to break it and see how it plays. You know. And see, you know, if it holds up.
You know and sometimes it’s whether it holds up as true. But sometimes whether it holds up as popular.
And some of it is a problem that journalists have always had, which is this embedded problem, which is you’re gonna get better stories from the police department if you hang out with the guys and go to the bars and drink with them and everything like that. But eventually, you’re gonna kinda hold back on some stories, because you don’t wanna hurt your friends.
Or, you’re gonna lose your sources and they’re gonna clam up if you’re really tough with them when you need to be tough with them. And that’s always— there’s a little bit of problem in that.
BRANCACCIO: I want to circle back to SILVER CITY.
This film really addresses the significance in a political campaign of political language. Take a look at this scene in which, I don’t know, what do you wanna call him, the Karl Rove character?
SAYLES: Uh-huh. Oh, absolutely.
CHUCK RAVEN: OK, so how did it go with our friends in Cherry Hill?
FEMALE CO-WORKER: I think they get it. They can finance the attack campaign, as long as—
CHUCK RAVEN: Public information outreach.
FEMALE CO-WORKER: As long as its limited to phone calls and print material financed directly through the educational committee they set up and we provide them with—
CHUCK RAVEN: Ah, Ah, Ah…advise them.
FEMALE CO-WORKER: Advise them on which agency to hire, on the content of the print material, and the texts of the phone messages—
BRANCACCIO: So she says, “Finance the attack campaign.” He corrects her and says, “Public information outreach.”
BRANCACCIO: It’s a funny line but this is a serious point.
SAYLES: Oh, yeah. I mean, especially during the campaign, all politics is performance.
And there is something Orwellian about, you know, the way that language is being used these days. So you have in the film, something that is basically a Bill to help developers go into land that’s never been developed before, for a good reason, cause it belongs to the American public. And there’s environmental concerns. But you call it the Environmental Heritage Initiative.
So, you know, words are very, very powerful. Whether you call somebody a ‘Freedom Fighter’ or a terrorist. What is a liberal? You know liberal has—
BRANCACCIO: You mean a progressive?
SAYLES: Yeah. Is it a progressive or is it a liberal? So, you know, how we identify these things already there’s an attitude in them. Is it good or bad? Is it negative? And you can, you know, controlling politics is partly controlling language.
And then the people in power, the powerful people, you know, the people who are the robber-barons say, it’s not robbery. It’s the free market system. No, this isn’t corporate welfare. We’re building jobs here. When, in fact, all those jobs are actually in Pakistan.
BRANCACCIO: In SILVER CITY, you’re bending the genre a little there at the end with the investigator, because in Film Noir, which I think this is perhaps what this movie is; he’s supposed to come to a worse of an end. But, in fact, he is sort of ennobled by this horrible experience.
SAYLES: Yeah. I mean, as I said, he doesn’t win the war but he learns something. And in Film Noir, very often, people— they may be hard lessons. You know the lesson may be, it’s Chinatown Jake forget it. You know. But in this one he doesn’t forget it. And there’s this little bit of hope.
You know it’s, you know, the old Agatha Christie phrase was; Murder will out. Well, one of the main visual metaphors in SILVER CITY and one of the reasons that I chose to shoot it in Colorado is here’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. And underneath the ground, and sometimes on top of the ground, is toxic waste from a history of mining. Back when there were no environmental laws.
There are beautiful pristine-looking streams that there are no fish living in. You know because they’ve been poisoned by some kind of run-off. Eventually that stuff comes up. It comes up in your water. Sometimes it just comes up on to the surface and starts smoking.
And so, to me, that’s some of the hope in the movie is that, you know, in the course of time, sometimes this stuff comes out. Well, one of the jobs of journalists, I think, should be to make sure it comes out before it’s too late. You know, if you know the stuff is rotting under there, you know pull the scab off and say; Look at this. This shouldn’t be happening.
BRANCACCIO: But you’re killing me, John, here. You’re putting all this onus on me because I’m a reporter. How about putting some on the citizens, the voters?
SAYLES: Well, absolutely. You know and I do think that one of the things that you asked to people, and it’s a very, very, very difficult thing to ask. Which is to say, “Okay, there is my self-interest, and my personal things that I care about the most. But I’m in this with a bunch of other people. And so what about them? You know is there something that’s good for me that’s really bad for everybody else? Do I have to give something up? And it may be just my time. You know, maybe I have to go out and say; Well, I can’t, you know, kind of sit home and watch the election like it’s a sporting event on TV. Maybe I have to, if I really believe in one of these candidates, or you know think that you know he’s enough different than the other one, or she is enough different than the other one, I have to go knock on doors.”
I was at a little meeting of Wellstone organizers. And the guy who was running the seminar was saying; Well, we get all these people who say they’d like to volunteer and they’ll do anything but knock on doors. He says, “Well, actually, what we need is we need people to knock on doors. We don’t need people to stuff envelopes. There’s only so many envelopes that need stuffing. We need people to actually go out there, like a salesman, which is a tough thing to do, knock on the door, and not know whose gonna answer it. Somebody who totally doesn’t believe in what we’re selling.” Maybe that’s what you have to do.
Maybe it’s just informing yourself better. Maybe it’s going to one committee meeting. You know. Maybe it’s writing a check. But there has to be that thing that says, “Well, wait a minute. There are other people involved here. I don’t have kids. You know. Well, does that mean I don’t care about education?”
If you connect the dots, guess what? The better the education is, the better your life is gonna be. Even if you don’t have kids.
BRANCACCIO: Well, John Sayles, thank you very much.
SAYLES: Thank you.
BRANCACCIO: SILVER CITY will open September 17th in at least 20 cities. Check pbs.org for details.
In a few minutes, you’ll meet two women who re-invent America and the world before our eyes.
But first, the public television station you’re watching depends on your support to bring you these original voices, week after week. Here’s your chance to vote for the programs you want to see.
Back now to John Sayles.
Long before there was a prominent market niche for independent films, there was John Sayles. In 1980, he made his first film, RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7 for what’s reckoned to have been about 40-thousand dollars. For more than two decades, he has written, directed and acted in his movies.
His films are made for grownups who relish his unforgettable mix of character, location… and real life issues.
What is the role of this film, SILVER CITY and our political process? It’s gonna come out in mid-September.
BRANCACCIO: T-minus X number of weeks just before the General Election. Sounds like you guys hustled this together to be sure it came out before the elections.
SAYLES: Yeah, I think— Well, for one thing there are a bunch of documentaries that have come out: Michael Moore’s documentary, there’s one that is questioning Fox News now that’s going to come out. Some of them are going to come out in theaters. Some of them are gonna come out just—
BRANCACCIO: And a new one that’s gonna question Michael Moore.
SAYLES: Yeah, exactly. That’s all part of the conversation. This film is unique in some ways, SILVER CITY, in that it’s a fiction film. You know it’s a regular story film. It’s a mystery. But in that forum there are things that you can do that make people think. And that’s the main thing that I like people to walk away from all of our films in doing, is just saying, “Well, how does this apply to my life?”
You know, it makes you think about you personally, but also the social situation that you’re in. I do think that voters have to be more critical. This stuff, when you connect the dots, it actually does make a difference. It makes a difference in lives.
I mean, literally people are going to get killed who, if you vote in a more responsible way, might not get killed. You know, it gets that big. Especially when you get to Presidential politics and Congressional politics. It’s a big responsibility.
And, for that, you have to think, and say, and ask some questions. We have to ask a lot more from our politicians than we’re getting.
You know, as Will Rogers said, you know, “We have the best politicians money can buy.” Well, we’re not getting our money’s worth. You know the dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to.
BRANCACCIO: It’s not an angry film though. It’s not angry in the sense that FAHRENHEIT 9/11 is, wears its anger on its sleeve.
BRANCACCIO: Is there a risk people will regard this as entertainment?
SAYLES: Well, it should be an entertainment.
And I do think that some of the reasons that it’s not as angry, is because it does not deal with international politics. You know.
BRANCACCIO: Stayed out of that?
SAYLES: Yeah, I think on purpose just because the scale of it. So, I’m just talking about the stuff that you can, you know, mess up here at home. And, I think, the biggest thing is that there’s always been money in politics. There’s always been, you know, bought politicians.
But it is being institutionalized now to an extent that we haven’t seen for a long, long time. The ability of corporate America to run this government and that “one man, one vote” is a joke in most places.
Candidates get in because they have a lot of financial backing. They’re not getting that backing from the people. They either have that own wealth themselves or wealthy people, usually corporate interests, put them in, and that’s who their constituency is.
BRANCACCIO: So again, you don’t want the audience watching this film to say, “Look, they’re all a bunch of bums. I’m gonna go hide on Election Day.”
BRANCACCIO: I mean, even with that reality, you’re trying to get people motivated.
SAYLES: Yeah, yeah. I think if there’s an arc in the film that’s an emotional arc, it is the main character who starts out this guy whose been burned before, who is a little bit cynical. By the end of the film, he hasn’t necessarily won the battle, or the war, but he’s won back his sense of moral outrage.
And I think that’s a really, really, really important tool for any journalist and any citizen to have. Is; no they can’t do that in this country. No, you can’t say that you’re a patriot, run a big company, and pay no taxes because you’ve got off-shore shelters, shell companies.
And then, you know, you know, so go live in that off shore country, but I don’t want your trucks on my roads. I don’t want your kids going to my schools. I don’t want you taking advantage of all these things that tax money does pay for.
You know, if you’re a patriot, stay here, pay your taxes. You know, keep the jobs in the country. You know, and then I wanna hear this. You know, hypocrisy is a lot of what we work on in our movies. You know, how much hypocrisy can we stand? At what point do you kind of blow the whistle on people and say, “You know, what you’re doing and what you’re saying are totally, totally different things”? You know, and I think that’s, you know, that’s what citizens have to look out for and that’s what journalists have to look out for.
BRANCACCIO: Now we turn to two women who explore cultures in collision. In a moment, you’ll meet Sarah Jones, whose astounding one-woman show zeroes in on new immigrants grappling with their American identity.
JONES: It sounds better in Russian.
BRANCACCIO: More with Sarah Jones later. But first, we talk to a filmmaker who turns her documentary eye on journalists and it’s not a pretty picture. Her name is Jehane Noujaim and her unique voice comes from her ability to move easily between two worlds.
Born in Egypt to an Egyptian father and American mother from Indiana, she moved at the age of 16 with her family to the United States. Her documentary CONTROL ROOM is about Arab and American coverage of the war in Iraq.
Journalists hold a special responsibility as truth-tellers. But the truth can shift depending on where you’re standing. No one knows that better than Jehane Noujaim.
I just saw some new polling done by Zogby International looking at attitudes towards the United States in the Middle East. And just taking a look at Egypt, for instance, in 2002, 76 percent of Egyptians surveyed had unfavorable views towards America.
Now in 2004, it’s up to 98 percent of Egyptians view the U.S. unfavorably.
NOUJAIM: Uh-huh. I think it’s very difficult for us to sell a foreign policy to the Arab world that’s not trusted, that hasn’t been seen as fair towards the Middle East. And that’s what it focused on. Because I don’t think that the motives of the U.S. are trusted.
When they entered into Iraq, I don’t think that, I mean, the general opinion in the Arab world was that the U.S. was going for the oil, that’s it. They didn’t think that they were legitimately going after somebody for weapons of mass destruction or anything like that.
They see the U.S. saying, “Well, we want to bring democracy to the region,” yet for so long, they’ve supported all of these un-democratic leaders, including our President in Egypt, including, you know, many other leaders in the Arab world that are seen as puppets of the U.S. Government.
And then you have what’s considered to be the kind of blind support of Israel without any kind of consideration of the Palestinian issue. And I think that’s the major— that’s the root of the anger towards the United States.
BRANCACCIO: Just want to drill down a little bit in this. I mean, here’s— among the many concerns is my dying wish would be that Israelis and Palestinians would find happiness somehow. But then you worry that what underlies a lot of resentment in the Middle East towards America may go deeper than that.
You saw that in the Control Room in your film, when you’re talking to Hassan Ibrahim, the BBC-trained journalist. There’s this section.
IBRAHIM: Ok. You are the most powerful nation on earth. I agree. You can defeat everybody. I agree. You can crush everybody. I agree. But don’t ask us to love it as well.
BRANCACCIO: He seems to be making the point that the U.S. is resented because of its power, because it’s essentially number one. That’s not something that is a matter of public policy Americans are likely to want to change, and so there’s gonna be this resentment about that.
NOUJAIM: I think that what you’re hearing from Hassan is that. It’s that, look, you know, here you are, the most powerful nation on earth, what we have is our ability to think for ourselves about how we feel about that, or how you’re using that power.
I think that people feel like here you have the United States, we consume a lot more than the rest of the world for our size. We produce a lot more garbage than anybody in the rest of the world for our size. And we’re affecting people who are halfway across the world.
Our tax dollars are paying for bombs to go to Iraq, to go to Afghanistan, and yet we don’t actually know how these people really feel. And there’s that acute sense there that people feel like the United States doesn’t care, that it doesn’t care how their invasion or how their foreign policy is affecting us.
And so all you can do in that situation is to say, “These are my feelings about it. I can’t do anything about it. But I’m allowed to have my own perspective on what the U.S. is doing.” And that’s what you’re seeing in these polls.
BRANCACCIO: But mixed in with these attitudes are contradictory thoughts. As you see it in your film, Samir Khader, the senior editor, is talking about, he’s very critical of the United States. I mean, certainly he’s on the record as being critical of the United States. But there’s an interesting place in your film where he talks actually quite affectionately about the United States in terms of his aspirations for his children.
KHADER: To change the Arab nightmare into the American dream. I still have that dream. Maybe I will never be able to do it, but I have plans for my children. When they finish their high school I will send them to American to study there. I will pay for their study and they will stay there.
BRANCACCIO: His goal is to change the, as he puts it, the Arab nightmare into the American dream. Hello. Jehane, he aspires toward our values. At the same time, there’s all this antipathy.
NOUJAIM: Sure. I mean, I think that it’s the difference between the love for what the United States stand for — for freedom, for democracy, for freedom of speech, for voting rights — versus what the United States is doing abroad in their foreign policy. I mean, I think that what Arabs see is that democracy so far has been limited to inside the United States.
But those same values are not applied in their treatment of countries outside of the United States. But what you see with Samir is a sentiment that you see across the Arab world. I mean, it’s very interesting. The picture of the American Embassyin Egypt, it’s right next to my father’s office in Egypt.
And kind of the blockades against possible terrorist attack. They’ve now blocked like six streets around the embassy. But you still see the lines around the embassy of people that want to get visas. That people that wanna go to the States. That people who want to send their kids to be educated here. Because this is seen as a land of opportunity.
And so I think that, you know, I go back to the fact that there’s just a very big difference between what people feel about the United States and what they stand for, and about what the government of the United States is actually doing in the Arab world.
BRANCACCIO: But, a lot of people in the Middle East don’t understand the fact that America may have a more complex reaction to the situation than is appreciated there.
NOUJAIM: I definitely agree. I think that part of the responsibility actually of Al Jazeera is to bring the complexity of the American reaction and the American feelings towards the Arab world to the Arab world by Al Jazeera.
BRANCACCIO: Are they pulling that off? They’re pretty anti-American.
NOUJAIM: They interesting in this way, because they show the destruction of war. But there is something that, you know, wouldn’t automatically think is something that is pro-American when you first to listen to it. But actually the results of it ends up being something that is supportive of the United States. And this came about when I was asked how is Al Jazeera covering the Abu Ghraib prison abuses.
BRANCACCIO: These atrocities in the prison.
NOUJAIM: Right. And Samir Khader was with me doing interviews at the time.
He’s a senior producer at Al Jazeera. And he said, you know, we’re actually broadcasting four hours a day live of the the questioning that’s happening of Rumsfeld, of these officials. It’s being shown live on Al Jazeera four hours a day. And the reaction of people in the Arab world when they watch this on Al Jazeera, well, we have these atrocities happening and being committed, this torture. It’s happening across all Arab prisons.
I mean, most people in the Arab world know this.
But when an Arab official of the level of Rumsfeld or these guys that were on put on trial ever be held accountable for it? No. They can’t imagine an Arab official being held accountable. Yet here they were watching this person very high up in the American government, Rumsfeld, being questioned.
This was democracy in action. This was showing that people can make mistakes. Governments can make mistakes. The military can make a mistake. But at least in a democracy, people are held accountable for it.
And so this kind of programming on Al Jazeera can actually be much more of an advertisement for what the US stands for and for democracy than 20 programmings on the rebuilding of Iraq. Because somebody in the Arab world will look at that with cynicism and say, oh yea, well, they’re rebuilding Iraq because, you know, they’ll get the oil at the end of it versus watching the trial of Rumsfeld and these other officials is seen as, oh, okay. Well, they’re being held responsible for the atrocities that happened in the prison. And that’s actually a very positive, you know, a very positive effect that Al Jazeera can bring.
BRANCACCIO: But Al Jazeera, it’s not some sort of neutral force for covering world events.
NOUJAIM: It’s not— I think that the journalists there do have a point of view. They were very much anti-war. But much as they’re against what the United States was doing in Iraq, they’re also very much against Arab governments in the region for not fixing things in the Arab world. For not, working towards a better place for people to live.
And this is why they’ve been shut down in so many Arab countries. Their reporters have been jailed. Their offices have been— Jazeera’s offices have been closed down. I think Samir Khader, who is the senior producer at Al Jazeera, said that he’s not allowed into 15 out of the 22 Arab countries because he’s an Al-Jazeera journalist.
He’s not allowed to make the Hajj, the Muslim rite, the trip to Mecca because he’s an Al Jazeera journalist. He’s not allowed in Saudi Arabia. So you know, the Arab governments certainly haven’t been very tolerant of criticism of themselves and of free speech.
BRANCACCIO: So Jehane, a number of your friends have wanted to or have traveled to the Middle East to understand the region better. Isn’t that fairly rare?
NOUJAIM: I can be a convincing person. So—
BRANCACCIO: You’ve been dragging them to the Middle East?
NOUJAIM: Maybe I’ve been dragging them to the Middle East.
BRANCACCIO: Well, what is the tour of the Middle East that you give them? What are the stops on the tour?
NOUJAIM: I have a standard tour. And I do see with friends of mine that have traveled to the Middle East and people that I’ve met here that have gone abroad, their views of the world and the United States’ role in the world is drastically different after a first trip abroad than it was when they were living in the United States.
I mean, we’re an amazing country. We’re a country that is called the land of the free, because it’s where people from all over the world have come to seek freedom and opportunity. And you still see that image of the United States abroad.
But if we become this close-minded place here, where we don’t understand other cultures, what’s happening outside of our borders are we’re effecting the rest of the world, I think that’s extremely dangerous for us.
BRANCACCIO: Well, Jehane Noujaim, thank you very much for joining us.
NOUJAIM: Thank you very much for having me.
BRANCACCIO: We’re all trying to figure out what’s going on in these weeks before the elections. There are some unique voices, with a lot to say about today’s politics and the world, who typically are not being heard on the political shows. We’re taking this summer of 2004 moment to have these conversations. Consider now, Sarah Jones. She’s a poet, actor, and playwright.
Her latest show, BRIDGE AND TUNNEL, is playing off-Broadway here in New York. First and foremost, Sarah Jones is a political activist. Her work explores the other America. New immigrants, as they struggle with their pride and their pain. In the show, she plays all 14 of the characters. Here’s a sampling.
JONES: There are basically a few career possibilities for people of Jamaican ancestry in this country. One is to become Secretary of State. So, you have Secretary of State. Another is to take care of children.
JONES: She says she is in love, in love with a nice Chinese girl. So these are the words I’m waiting to hear, but from my son, not my daughter.
JONES: I could relate. Saying, as a black man. Even though I was born here. Cuz it’s like, all right. It’s like, black people, we got imported. Y’all get deported.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
BRANCACCIO: All of that is Sarah Jones. Sarah Jones, welcome to NOW.
JONES: Thank you for having me.
BRANCACCIO: Look, I have to ask. I just saw the show last night. How do these voices first assert themselves? Do you start with a concept first, then the voice?
JONES: I’ve actually always started with what feels most natural. Which is, the people who surround me in my daily life. So, the first show I ever wrote, which is called SURFACE TRANSIT, was based in part on people I knew from my family. Co-workers, ex-boyfriends. All of that kind of thing. I think that we’re at a moment when just your neighbors and your loved ones are, you know, these larger than life characters who often come from different backgrounds. So, that’s where I get them.
BRANCACCIO: Why this group? Why new-ish immigrants?
JONES: I think there’s something so profoundly American about the story of immigrants right now. We’re talking about post-September 11th. You know, the difficulties that people face because of, you know, everything from all of our civil liberties, you know, being threatened, to the specific issues around, you know, a person who’s maybe of Middle Eastern descent.
Or maybe, you know, is, you know, Muslim, or South Asian, or just to find that you’re being profiled, you know, at the airport, and all of those things, to find those new issues, then compiled on top of what many activists call the September 10th issues. All of the issues that, you know, were already, you know, daunting enough as an immigrant, being here.
To me, that’s the story of struggle, and, you know, perseverance, that we like to associate with America.
BRANCACCIO: Tell me about the Master of Ceremonies in your piece.
JONES: Well, the Master of Ceremonies in BRIDGE AND TUNNEL is a wonderful man, if I do say so myself. I talk about all the characters in the third person. But, he is a really congenial— just a good stand-up guy, who happens to be Pakistani-American. He’s been here for years. You know. A quarter-century already.
But he finds himself suddenly the subject of an inquiry. And, you know, not unlike many people who suddenly found that, you know, whether they were lawyers or doctors or accountants, or, you know, workers in various industries, they were subject to search of their homes, or subject to phone calls, and forced interviews, and registration, and all kinds of things that, you know, because of the Patriot Act, and this idea that we’re somehow safer if we interrogate based on, you know, these— really what amounts to racial profiling, people ended up in these harrowing circumstances.
BRANCACCIO: He’s been summoned to some sort of meeting at a federal building.
JONES: He has. And you know, I wonder what happens to him. I mean, I unfortunately, have done enough reading. And, you know, all of us watch the news, and hear occasional stories of how this turns people’s lives upside-down. But I think we don’t, we haven’t even heard, really, the thousands of stories of, you know, people’s lives being disrupted. And I wonder, for what?
BRANCACCIO: What is his full name is Mohammad Ali, in the play. What does he tell the person at the other end of the phone, when he’s trying to reassure her the— what he’s gonna tell anybody, if he has to go down to the federal building?
JONES: Well, I should probably let him tell this, it’s his life. But okay, first of all, my name is Mohammed Ali. And this is not the Mohammed Ali that you know of, the boxing. But okay, can save that joke for next time. Okay, DVD. And, the thing which I’m trying to tell my wife on the phone during the BRIDGE AND TUNNEL is that if they want to question me, I will tell them, I am a red-blooded, Allah-fearing Republican. What is wrong with that? I am American as the next guy. As apple pie, maybe with the chutney on the side. I don’t know.
BRANCACCIO: And in fact, in the series of clips that we just saw, the first character is a Jamaican childcare giver. But she says something quite significant. She says that she doesn’t mix art and politics. Who’s talking there?
JONES: A ha ha. Well, I think I slip in just a tiny bit there. But I think there is a debate in the arts about, you know, whether we must strive for art for art’s sake, and you know, kind of try to keep political debate out of our work.
And to that I say, I’d like you to show me an example of, you know, this so-called apolitical art. I don’t think there’s any such thing. Whether you’re talking about Shakespeare or, you know, if you look at Greek tragedies. I mean, every playwright, every songwriter, every artist who’s ever sat down and been moved to create something, has been living in a context. A political moment that’s most often reflected in their work.
Even if you’re, you know, kind of a nature poet. You can kind of feel the climate of the time, informing, you know, whatever it is you’ve written. Whether you’re a Walt Whitman, or, I mean, I think that’s so important to say. So. I believe that there is no separating art from politics.
BRANCACCIO: Do you ever feel under pressure to knock those jagged edges off your work? To appeal to, perhaps, a wider audience?
JONES: I think that the widest possible audience that I could reach is going to appreciate everything I have to say. I firmly believe that. I remember watching on television when I was a kid, great artists. Anybody from a Lily Tomlin to a Richard Pryor. These are people whose work, you know, many people would argue has a lot of edge. Or, you know, was certainly overtly political, in Lily’s case, you know, wonderful feminist writing from Jane Wagner. And they didn’t have to dumb it down, or tone it down, or anything. Because it did appeal to people. People like to think and be moved, even as they laugh, and, you know, kind of enjoy something that’s a little lighter.
BRANCACCIO: Let me ask you this. Do you think that contemporary politics, either party really, address the key concerns of your characters?
JONES: Wow, that’s a great question. These decisions that are made in the corridors of power in this country have to begin to more humanely reflect the needs of its citizens.
And I think that whether you’re talking about a minimum wage, whether you’re talking about, you know, people who lost all their savings because of misdeeds on the part of corporations that are closely tied to our current government, these are policy decisions and people and, you know, legislation that have to begin to be accountable to the people.
And so I think that what needs to happen is more of what we are seldom hearing, needs to make it to the forefront of what politicians are debating. You know, the ways that they’re making their decisions. You know, you have to make sure you think about women when you decide whether or not they have the right to chose, you know, reproductive rights and that kind of thing.
You have to, if you look at, you know, the Senate and look at how few women we have. If you look at, you know, how these decisions are being made, it’s not actually proportionate to who we all are as Americans. I’m a woman, I’m a black woman. You know, I look at the characters in my show, an Asian American woman. You know, a woman who’s of Middle Eastern descent, from Jordan. You know, where are their kind of representatives in our government?
And I think I don’t mean that there has to be one-to-one, you know, ratios of everybody. But it would be great if there were more access to, you know, all of our offices. That you didn’t just have to be somebody’s son and, you know, be lucky enough to skate through Yale and, you know, have all the right pedigree to become president. That if you really have, you know, the drive and the tenacity that you can, you know, reach these places. And be representative of everybody.
BRANCACCIO: So there you are in the play in the Bridge and Tunnel Club. And the rubric under which this kind of poetry slam is occurring is called, “I am a Poet Too.” But that’s apparently an acronym?
JONES: It is an acronym.
BRANCACCIO: And what’s it stand for? I have a question about that.
JONES: It stands for Immigrants And Multiculturalist American Poets, Or Enthusiasts, Traveling Toward Optimistic Openness. Mohammed came up with that one.
BRANCACCIO: Mohammed the emcee?
BRANCACCIO: But traveling toward optimistic openness—
BRANCACCIO: —are you? Do you share that kind of optimistic goal? Are we kind of headed that way? Could we—
BRANCACCIO: —reach a place like that?
JONES: Absolutely. I believe that it, you know, might not come tomorrow. It, you know, maybe it’ll come November 3rd. But, I mean, my hope is that we’re in a position now where we have more access to information than ever, in spite of the monopolies, you know, that we talk about in our media.
I mean, and you can almost think of media as, you know, another branch of government in some ways. I mean, it has so much influence on how we live and what we see. But increasingly people of all backgrounds are, you know, kind of coming together in a galvanized movement. And it’s always been people’s movements that have helped us, you know, become a more enlightened society. So I think we’re headed that way. Optimistic openness. Definitely.
BRANCACCIO: Well, Sarah, BRIDGE AND TUNNEL your play, is just finishing its off-Broadway run and is coming to Broadway in March of next year.
JONES: I’m thrilled about it. I can’t wait to be on Broadway. I’ll see you in March.
BRANCACCIO: Alright. Sarah Jones, thank you very much.
JONES: Thanks for having me.
BRANCACCIO: Next week on NOW, democracy’s call for an informed citizenry. Education is critical.
NOW goes inside a remarkable school for students who don’t fit in anywhere else.
ZHAOLIN: This is the place that you can really have the opportunity to perform yourself. Show your talent. And show what you can do. You just try your best.
BRANCACCIO: A school where truly no child is left behind. Next week on NOW.
Connect to NOW online at pbs.org.
Explore the history of art and politics in America. Investigate the Arab world’s take on election 2004. Learn more about censorship in the media.
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
That’s it for NOW. Thank you for supporting this public television station. I’m David Brancaccio. See you next week.
This transcript was entered on August 20, 2015.