HBO, Janet Van Ham, Associated Press
In this undated publicity image released by HBO, documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi is shown at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Hermosa, S.D. Pelosi's new film, "Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip," debuts at 9 p.m. EDT, July 4, 2011, on HBO.
NEW YORK — HBO's new documentary "Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip" is such an unabashed love letter to the country that you almost expect fireworks to burst through the TV screen at the end.
Yet the Alexandra Pelosi project also comes with so many layers of political baggage — her background as the daughter of former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the charged issue of illegal immigration and a discomfort with patriotism — that it will be hard for people to take it at face value.
Alexandra Pelosi, maker of a series of documentaries starting with the 2000 presidential campaign narrative "Journeys With George," traveled across the country to film ceremonies where immigrants were sworn in as new U.S. citizens. New citizens explain why they took the oath and what they like about their new country in the film, which debuts at 9 p.m. EDT on July 4.
"The purpose of this journey was to show people all of the things that people in America take for granted," Pelosi said in an interview.
It was born of personal experience. Pelosi's husband, Michiel Vos, moved from Holland to New York when they married. The realization that he could be thrown out of the country without his wife and two children at any time prompted him to pursue citizenship. Pelosi brought her camera to film Vos' naturalization ceremony, and followed him to other states when he had speaking engagements at similar occasions.
The film opens with Vos reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance" together with President Barack Obama. (Although Obama appeared in the film, the administration nixed one promotional idea. Pelosi appeared on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report" last week, where host Stephen Colbert revealed that the show wanted to air a live ceremony of new citizens being sworn in. The White House said no because it didn't think a comedy show was the right place for such an important event in the lives of new citizens.)
Pelosi, who has an irreverent, relentlessly curious style of filmmaking that seeks out the unusual and unique, was fascinated with some of the people she met and began telling their stories: a Polish man in New Hampshire moved by Obama's election to become a citizen; a Muslim woman from Jordan who lives in Memphis and marvels at how accepting of people her new country is; and a woman in Alaska who explains how she couldn't even choose the color of her car when she lived in Hungary.
It was contrarian, Pelosi believed, to make a positive film about the U.S., particularly about immigration, an issue that is dominated by discussion about people who are in the country illegally. And her project was so misunderstood that one government worker who had helped her with filming described it as "a well-intentioned 'Borat,'" a reference to the Sacha Baron Cohen 2006 comedy that sends up American traditions and foreigners.
"I thought, 'Really? Borat?'" Pelosi recalled. "I was sure that I was going to be accused of making propaganda for the government."
The reaction to "Citizen U.S.A." shows Americans' sometimes uncomfortable relationship with patriotism. In one review, writer David Wiegand of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that it would be challenging to watch the documentary on any other day than the Fourth of July "and not feel an insistent rumble of cynicism."
Pelosi herself wonders whether HBO would have aired her documentary at all if it wasn't on July 4. She gives credit to HBO documentary chief Sheila Nevins "because, when you think about it, it's not really an HBO documentary. You'd expect to see this on Fox News," Pelosi said.
During her appearance on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" last week, the host began what seemed like a mocking "U.S.A., U.S.A." chant when Pelosi talked about her film. Granted, Pelosi may have provoked him, beginning her appearance by chiding Maher about "dissing" the U.S. earlier in the show. Maher also noted that Americans do a lot of complaining about their country that many other nations wouldn't tolerate.
Their exchange was quickly picked up by the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog, to attack the liberal Maher.
"If somebody disses Bill Maher on his HBO show, it makes you think that this movie might not be too bad," said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center, a reference to the assumption that it's somehow a surprise that a California-raised, New York resident and daughter of Nancy Pelosi — a liberal! — would make a patriotic film.
"People don't realize how much damage cable news has caused this country," Pelosi said. "I know it because I have to walk around America with the last name of Pelosi."
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She's bothered by a political climate where people who oppose her mother politically say things like Nancy Pelosi hates America.
"My mother has served this country," she said. "You may not like her politics, but she is actually in public service, which is a very noble profession. ... She's a believer. ... For people to say Pelosi doesn't love America is the cruelest of all insults because she works for America."
EDITOR'S NOTE — David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org