Television has long played a key role in helping us understand, appreciate and celebrate holidays.
Monday, HBO premieres a new documentary from Alexandra Pelosi, "Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip." And I promise that if you give this modest little film an hour of your time, you will feel renewed, uplifted and possibly even inspired about being an American despite the troubled times in which we live.
I mean it. This film was one of the most pleasant surprises I've had in a year of screening hundreds of TV productions. In fact, it made my weekend.
The premise of "Citizen U.S.A." is elegant in its simplicy.
"Inspired by her husband's desire to become an American, Emmy-winning filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi ("Journeys with George") attends naturalization ceremonies across all 50 states and meets brand-new citizens to learn why they chose America to be their home," according to HBO press materials.
And so she and her husband (who shared producing and filming duties with her) are off on a road trip to record naturalization ceremonies and interview new Americans.
If that sounds at all heavy, forget it. This is a filmmaker who goes out of her way with a camera to capture the quirky, weird, excessive and off-beat elements of American culture even as she tries to nail some of its own deeper truths.
Her films look and sound a little like they were made for MTV -- and I mean that in good way, because they are easy on the eyes, they fly by, and the music almost always moves you. And even better, they are really smart in ways that MTV productions almost never are.
But most of all, she gets out of the way and lets the new Americans tell her why they are so happy to have become citizens.
A man from Portugal, who now runs the water department in a tiny town in New England, talks about the things American take for granted, like not having to walk over a mile to get water from the side of a mountain. Pelosi follows him home from the naturalization ceremony as he celebrates by raising an American flag in the front of his house, a procedure he did not consider himself worthy of doing until he had become a citizen--even though he had been here for years.
A woman from Iran talks passionately about not being treated as a second class citizen any longer because of her gender.
A gay man from Iraq talks about people of the same gender being able to walk down the street and show affection for one another here.
Meanwhile, a former Canadian explains that he became an American so that he could own a gun. When Pelosi asks him how many he owns, he declines answering because he says he fears his wife might see the film and discover the extent of his collection.
Pelosi loves to surpise viewers in her films. Here she interview a group of new citizens from Iraq now living in Nebraska and a Buddhist monk who loves Utah. My favorite is a young Cuban woman in Mississippi who thought her husband was taking her to Oxford, England, not Oxford, Mississippi, home of the University of Mississippi. But now that they're in the American Oxford, they are happily raising a family with mom as a new American.
She does meet quite a few new citizens who hold Ph.D.'s in the sciences, and given that most of our children seem too lazy and spoiled to study hard enough to get one of those degrees, we should all be grateful that such folks still believe that leaving their homelands for America is a wise choice. One of the new citizens from this group whom Pelosi meets is already employed at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
The film's most powerful moment involves a group of American soldiers becoming citizens. I will say no more so as not to spoil the moment for viewers.
Independence and the freedom to make their own choices about their lives are what brought most new citizens here, they say. And the power of this film is in the diversity of the ways in which they describe, imagine and revel in those options.
Since Pelosi is the daughter of U.S. Rep Nancy Pelosi, some will undoubtedbly choose to view this film only through ideological blinders. And the first two references to President Barack Obama might make you think there is an ideological agenda at work.
But Alexandra Pelosi is not an ideologue and propsgandist the way Micheal Moore is -- in any way, shape or form. I have always liked and trusted her work. Here she deftly contextualizes the specific journeys to citizenship that she records within the larger national debate about immigration. One naturalization ceremony in Arizona is recorded while a protest over new state immigration laws rages outside the courthouse.
In the past, I thought Pelosi's worst flaw was a tendency to be smart-alecky at the expense of some of of the people she filmed. But there is none of that here.
She seems to have a genuine respect for the new citizens she encounters -- and a greater tolerance, maybe in some cases even an affection, for the ways in which some of the smaller and more remote communities welcome newcomers to full standing in American life.
"Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip" premieres at 9 p.m. Monday, with multiple replays throughout the month on HBO and HBO2.