What does it mean to be an American?
For the estimated 40 million Americans who were born outside this country, it boils down to a twenty-minute ceremony, probably held in a drab municipal building and capped off with a rousing rendition of a 1984 Lee Greenwood tune.
This is the naturalization ceremony, the final step in the American citizenship process, and its the subject of filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi's new documentary, "Citizen USA: A Fifty State Road Trip," premiering July 4th at 9 p.m. on HBO.
The youngest daughter of Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Paul Pelosi, "Citizen USA" is Pelosi's seventh project; in 2000 she won an Emmy for her political documentary "Journeys with George."
"Citizen USA" is in many ways a travel film: Over the course of a year Pelosi attended naturalization ceremonies in each of the 50 states, interviewing hundreds of new citizens. The result is an hour-long, feel-good film made up of brief interviews with her most memorable subjects.
In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Pelosi begins by clarifying that her film is about the naturalization process, not about immigration in general. "If you want to watch a film about the immigration debate, this is not your movie," she says.
"Citizen USA" is not meant to be a political statement, either. "I make films that show viewers the experiences of other people, that's it," she says. Pelosi was so intent upon avoiding any political overtones, she said, that initially she didn't even want to screen the film in Washington, D.C. "We didn’t want to have a screening in Washington because [we] wanted real people," she says without a hint of irony.
She eventually agreed to attend a screening hosted by a student group in mid-June, where, short of her mother and family friend Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), there were no politicos in the audience. "Washington used to be about ideas and how to solve problems," Pelosi muses. "Now its a fist fight."
The film was inspired by her husband, Michiel Vos, a Dutch immigrant who became a naturalized citizen in 2008. The father of two sons with Pelosi, Vos says his reason for naturalizing was simple: "I couldn't be a foreigner in my own family."
Yet for many of the film's subjects, their reasons for coming to America were more urgent. Speaking into Pelosi's handheld camera, they tell of discrimination, abject poverty, and political oppression. Pelosi said many more potential interview subjects declined to appear on film out of fear.
"There's a woman from Iran in the film, and we didn't use her name in order to protect her family in Iran," Pelosi explained. "After she saw the film, she said to me, 'I just want you to know, my brother [in Iran] is going to end up in jail [over this].'"
Pelosi pauses. "That was the scariest thing for me. We offered to take her out of the film, but she wanted to face her fears."
Other subjects feared American authorities. "[These people] are all living in the states, some for decades, so you’d think they would have learned [not to fear political reprisal]," she said. "But it’s a really visceral fear, really deep. For example, when [Mitt] Romney says Obama is failing this country, if you did that [in certain countries], you’d just disappear."
Overall, however, Pelosi's subjects are much more likely to describe an idealized vision of the United States, and these vignettes comprise the film's strongest moments.
One Iraqi immigrant recalls seeing a dog wearing booties, because, the dog's owner told him, the pavement was too hot for the dog's feet. “Many people would wish to be a animal in the United States!” he laughed.
Not surprisingly, economic opportunity came up over and over in the interviews. In Los Alamos, N.M. Pelosi interviewed a woman from India who said “America is the only place in the world where you can arrive with $100 in your pocket and get a P.h.D. in nuclear engineering."
Two familiar faces also appear in the film: Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, who was born in Greece, and theatrical Kiss frontman Gene Simmons, who immigrated from Israel.
“[America is where] they invented Superman," Simmons gushes, "the heroes with no limitations. Anything that you could ever dream about, the heroes were all invented here.”
As far as Pelosi is concerned, it's impossible to overstate the influence of Hollywood on immigrants' perceptions of the United States.
"Hollywood made the American dream, and it exports this dream around the world. As a result, the whole world wants to come here," she explains.
Nevertheless, Pelosi is realistic about her hopes for the film's impact. "The problem with television is that you can’t go too deep, or you lose people," she explains, "So my hope for my fifty-minute film is that it might make people think twice before they made an anti-immigrant slur."