“To introduce America to millions of people throughout the world”
It doesn’t take long for optimism to change to naiveté—a lesson learned from watching Peter Miller‘s informative documentary Projections of America. The film focuses on a series of twenty-six shorts produced during World War II by Robert Riskin and the European branch of America’s Office of War Information. This “propaganda of truth” was meant to instill a sense of hope and freedom in those liberated from the Nazi’s Fascist regime. They didn’t show America’s military strength, but instead our humanity. Portraits of international transplants like Arturo Toscanini or new technology like the Jeep brought these formerly oppressed populations a sense of beauty in art and knowledge that had been stolen from them during the occupation. And they succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The Americans were their allies.
But that’s an easier sell during liberation than it is in the aftermath of invasion, Atomic bombs, and the Cold War. There’s a reason we know nothing about these films and it isn’t solely because they were never shown on this side of the Atlantic. It isn’t that they are naïve either—they are still the same important, powerful pieces able to rekindle a spirit of life Hitler and the Germans took away. What has changed is our species. We’ve become jaded, cynical, and entitled. We’ve started to see ourselves as individuals out for our own self-interest rather than universal peace. We laugh at the subtlety of Riskin’s team’s work because we’ve become wary and distrustful. Other countries should see us as great simply because we are.
It’s a fascinating transition taken from an open-minded populace ready to introduce ourselves to strangers with open arms to the very thing we thought those strangers would be without such films—scared. We fear refugees and religions. We blame in broad strokes when it’s the few causing problems rather than the many. Suddenly America’s in need of propaganda films from the world to remember we’re all the same at heart. Where’s our contemporary Robert Riskin to globe-trot and commission new pieces from places like Iraq and Palestine so the American people can see they possess fathers, mothers, and children with kind hearts and intelligent minds? We didn’t want Italians or Turks to believe we were a new enemy, but now we see everyone else as one instead.
This is why we should see Riskin as a hero and why Miller’s film as narrated by John Lithgow helps in that goal. Here’s an Oscar-winning screenwriter who devoted his time during the war to creating a welcome wagon for Europe. He spent months abroad while new wife Fay Wray stayed home with the children. Both campaigned for Roosevelt’s reelection and both helped bring together like-minded individuals in Hollywood to make a difference. And as they helped alleviate fears internationally, we began to cultivate our own. The America shown in Riskin’s “projections” suddenly became obsolete—memories of a past no longer visible in a post-war world. Riskin saw the good in mankind and his country’s power to project it. We failed him.
Told with archival footage and interviews with historians, critics (Kenneth Turan), survivors, and family (Riskin’s children), Projections of America proves an informative glimpse at an integral cog in the war machine no one knows existed. We can joke about “simpler times” making it so a movie about the Jeep could unite so many in awe, but we do the same today with each new scientific discovery. These things that Riskin earmarked for dispersal are still universal to everyone and still could make a difference in uniting us together. It’s just a shame our world has changed so much in the past century that such optimism is relegated as weakness. This is an America that was and perhaps never can be again.