When documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi had her first child, her husband, Dutch-born producer Michiel Vos realized something. “I have to become a citizen,” he said, “because I can’t be a foreigner in my own family.”
The decision for Vos to become a citizen is what eventually led Pelosi to tell the stories of America’s newest citizens. The result is the uplifting documentary
Citizen USA: A 50 State Road Trip
, which premiered (appropriately) on July 4th, 2011 at 9 PM on HBO.
Armed with her Canon VIXIA camera, Pelosi had to seek out permission from a judge in every state to film the 50 naturalization ceremonies that make up her film. Rendering that process easier was the filmmaker’s bare bones equipment. “I don’t have any microphones or lights so it’s really raw. And it’s a small camera,” she says.
“I’ve never had a camera crew,” she adds. “This is the seventh film I’ve made for HBO and none of them have had a camera crew. It’s not that I chose it that way. I do a lot of road trip movies and the logistics of traveling with other people is really difficult.”
In fact, Pelosi herself was the camera operator on most of the footage. Her producer/husband Vos came along for some of the bigger ceremonies, like the one in Texas, to act as a second camera. But for the most part, it was just Pelosi and the subject.
“I don’t really rely on the equipment so much as relying on the idea of finding a good person to talk to,” says Pelosi. And speaking to the naturally affable documentarian, it’s easy to see why she got so many people from all walks of life to share such a joyous moment with her.
From Afghani street vendors in New York who are simply happy to openly flirt with girls, to a Portuguese man who’s thankful for indoor plumbing, the film is a celebration of what Pelosi calls, “the things Americans take for granted.”
It’s also a reaffirmation of the upheld traditions of diversity and freedom of expression. One of the most compelling (and exuberant) stories is that of Arij Hamad, a practicing Muslim woman living in Memphis, Tennessee.
“You’re the last person I would expect to find in the Bible Belt,” says Pelosi in the film, to which Hamad expresses her love for Memphis and her emphatic declaration that “this country will accept you no matter where you’re from.”
Says Pelosi, “Any time I go to a naturalization ceremony, I’m blown away by it.” She went to one in Memphis just last week where she says there were 32 countries represented. “In Texas,” she says, “there were 120 countries represented. It’s kind of remarkable.”