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HBOs Citizen U.S.A.: Seeing America Through Fresh Eyes

Citizen U.S.A.:  A Fifty State Road Trip,Alexandra Pelosi’s latest documentary set to air on HBO on July 4, premiered last night before a standing-room only crowd at San Francisco’s Palace of The Legion of Honor.  An impressive bevy of relatives and friends were in the audience to show their support, including her mom (Nancy), father (Paul), her sisters, brother (Paul Jr.), and filmmaker Philip Kaufman.

Pelosi gathered footage for Citizen U.S.A. by attending naturalization ceremonies across all 50 states.  In the process, she uncovered what it means to be uniquely American through the fresh eyes of our newest citizens.  With tongue-in-cheek good humor and an appreciation of our Blue State/Red State diversity, the film is heartwarming, infectious, inspiring.  (Most, if not all, ceremonies feature entertainment – from children’s choirs to Native American dancers to country guitarists.)

Had HBO distributed little American flags, I’m sure last night’s audience would have waved them around enthusiastically.

Each year almost one million people from 150 countries choose to become citizens.  Those sampled by Pelosi marvel at the open culture many natural-born Americans take for granted - the simple act of walking down the street and holding hands without fear, access to clean water from a tap, or the chance to be a valued member of society in spite of a disability.  One recurring theme: the thrill of work, the lack of barriers relative to other countries.  Many newly sworn-in citizens seemed to shake their heads in wonder over the opportunity to make something of oneself through hard work and initiative.  It may sound very Horatio Alger, but it’s not a myth - these people are living the dream.

Last night’s event kicked off with the “Star Spangled Banner,” beautifully rendered by a young woman from St. Ignatius High School.  After some brief remarks by Alexandra - who said the documentary was inspired by her husband Michiel Vos’ path to citizenship - the film began.  (Vos is also credited as a producer.)

When it was over, there was hardly a dry eye in the house, but not because the film is maudlin.  Not at all.  If anything, the documentary is understated.  Alexandra Pelosi stays out of the way of her subjects, and lets them speak for themselves without judgment or embellishment.  And even though she’s behind the camera (literally filming), in what little we hear of her, she’s disarming with a lightening quick sense of humor.

The run time of the documentary is only fifty-two minutes.   A great deal of material probably ended up on the cutting room floor.  However, kudos to Michael Levine and Andy Morreale for their masterful editing work.  Fortunately, there’s more content in the lovely coffee table book (available at Amazon) that accompanies the film.

Citizen U.S.A. airs Monday, July 4 at 9p ET/PT.

Click here for a photo of Alexandra, chatting with a filmgoer after the screening.