We may live in a global village, but most people’s knowledge of other cultures remains woefully slight. With commercial media more interested in selling products than in informing citizens, realistic depictions of life elsewhere can be surprisingly scarce.

Clearly, in the post-9/11 world, such failures of understanding can have catastrophic consequences. It is to address this problem that the Global Perspectives Project was launched.

The project, to which The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation has committed $2 million a year for five years, is working to help produce and distribute foreign documentary films for broadcast in this country, as well as to distribute documentaries about life in America to audiences in other countries.

“The only America that the world may find worth listening to is an America that shows that it’s interested in listening to the world,” says Smita Singh, director of the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development Program. “There have to be two-way communications, and independent voices are going to be more meaningful than works produced by governments.”

In this country, the project was launched in October with the broadcast of “Please Vote for Me,” a funny and appealing film about an experiment in democracy in a Chinese elementary school, which for the first time allowed a class of third graders to elect a class monitor.

“I am the one who will work hard and will make you happy,” one diminutive candidate intones, practicing her stump speech at her mother’s prompting. The campaign comes complete with dirty tricks, as another candidate encourages a classmate to shout “That’s terrible!” when the girl finishes.

How oddly comforting it can be to know that some things are universal.

Broad Distribution Planned

The project currently is arranging for the American broadcast of forty documentaries from more than forty countries around the world, with twenty more in the pipeline. The range of subject matter can be startling. Among the films are “Iranian Kidney Bargain Sale,” a heartbreaking look at that country’s unique legal trade in the sale of human kidneys; “The End of Waiting Time,” about Spanish families’ attempts to learn what happened to relatives arrested during the long reign of General Francisco Franco; and “First Australians,” a film about the arrival of westerners in that country told from the perspective of Aboriginal filmmakers.

 “Please Vote for Me” premiered to audiences across the United States on the Public Broadcasting Service and PBS’s digital World channel; on major commercial channels, such as Sundance Channel and National Geographic Channel; online, via AOL and the movie download site jaman.com; and on mobile telephones through a partnership with iThentic.

On the flip side is ”True Stories: Life in the U.S.A.,” work by American documentary filmmakers for distribution overseas. This part of the project got under way last year. Hosted the first season by actor Benicio Del Toro and this year by Danny Glover, it offers a no less broad-ranging look at life in this country. Among the offerings the foreign audiences saw in the first season were “Girl Wrestler,” about a Texas teenager’s quest to be allowed to wrestle boys; “For Better or For Worse,” a look at commitment through the eyes of five American couples who have been together fifty years or longer; and “The Buffalo War,” about the culture clash between Native Americans, ranchers, environmentalists, and government officials battling over the slaughter of America’s last wild bison.

So far, “True Stories” is being broadcast in Indonesia, Bahrain, Colombia, Hong Kong, Malawi, and Peru, among other countries, and plans are under way to expand the series to an additional fifteen-to-twenty-five in the next three years.

Initial Audience Response Positive

To date, the response of viewers suggests the project has begun to achieve its goals.

“I say thank you for bringing them into my home, for breaking down stereotypes,” a viewer in Augusta, Georgia, wrote about the documentary “Pickles, Inc.,” which recounted the quest of a group of Palestinian women to start their own business.  “[The film reminded] me that there are models of honorable women around the world regardless of the struggles they face.”

Said a viewer of “Please Vote for Me”: “Great film! As a current teacher in the U.S. and as someone who went to China to adopt a daughter in 2002, I thought it really provided a raw slice of that culture-the good and the bad.”

The project is being run by the Independent Television Service, a nonprofit corporation that Congress created in 1991 to assure independent voices a place in the Public Broadcasting Service and other media.
ITVS created an international unit to direct the Global Perspectives Project because its public funds, which the Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides, support only the work of American filmmakers. That’s where private funders come in. The Hewlett Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation together are contributing a total of $3.5 million annually for five years to underwrite the work of the foreign filmmakers. The distribution of American films abroad is being financed in part by a small congressional grant that the State Department is administering.

Sally Jo Fifer, president and CEO of ITVS, notes that before deciding to launch the project, her organization and the foundations looked at research to try to determine why Americans were not following international news.

“What was really interesting was that it became clear that Americans were not being provided any context to be able to understand these stories,” she says.

“What’s the report card on international media today? If you look not at how many eyeballs they get, but at how informed our citizens are to deal with complex public issues, well, they get a rather poor grade. That’s what’s frustrating: public affairs used to be alive in the commercial media. Now they’re not.”

Context Is A Key To Understanding

And the documentary form, Fifer says, is the perfect answer to the problem.

“In the past few years, documentaries have surged around the world,” she reports. “They create an empathetic path to understanding, which is key to addressing the complex issues we’re dealing with. There is a real hunger for synthesis. Documentaries now serve the same role as great nonfiction books.”

In some cases, Fifer says, the goal of the project is for people to go beyond mutual understanding to engage issues as citizens. She talks of the “long tail” that such programming now has, with a large initial broadcast audience, followed by sustained engagement by smaller numbers of viewers who visit each show’s Web site to learn what else they can do. For example, the Web site for a documentary about a young Algerian woman’s pursuit of equity between men and women connects viewers to the Global Fund for Women, which works on those issues. Fifer says ITVS also has aggressively pursued the use of social networking sites like Facebook to engage viewers.

According to Fifer, the goals of the Global Perspectives Project are long term.

“This probably is a decades-long effort,” she predicts. “Success will be getting enough programming coming through to make a difference on commercial media and sustaining the pipelines after the project ends. We think we can show that Americans want to see these documentaries. It’s a matter of getting the films to them.”

For the full list of U.S. documentaries to be aired in foreign markets, visit http://itvs.org/international/truestories/season2_films.html
For the full list of foreign documentaries to be aired in the United States, visit