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Now hear this, America: ‘The Listening Project’

The Listening Project
Rikshaw Films
“Listener” Han Shan, left, gets an earful in “The Listening Project.”


Born in Philadephia, reared in the Bay Area and schooled by his lifelong addiction to world travel, Twin Cities-based filmmaker Dominic Howes has spent the last 10 years trying to get accustomed to Minnesota winters — and says he’s still trying.

But Howes admits that ice and cold are nothing compared to the dangers of “land mines and insurgent forces” in Afghanistan, one of 14 countries he and Rikshaw Films partner Joel Weber visited last year for their documentary, “The Listening Project.” (The screening will be Thursday, Dec. 13 at Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis as part of the “Fearless Filmmakers” series.)

“My American-ness has always been a subject of conversation in my travels whether I wanted it to be or not,” says Howes, for whom “The Listening Project” afforded an opportunity to capture that subject on digital video. Funded and conceived by executive producer and philanthropist Jim Pohlad, the documentary collects the opinions of dozens of people around the world — from Afghanistan to South Africa, China, Israel and Palestine. All are asked, “What do you think of America?”

Glimpses of hope
Howes, who along with Weber and editor Todd Grabe shaped 280 hours of material into a 76-minute feature, says the answers didn’t surprise him so much as encourage him to feel hopeful about the possibility of world peace.

“On the whole, the critiques of America that we heard were quite nuanced,” Howes says. “What you notice is that people do make an effort to distinguish between American government and American citizens. And this is what we want the film to show — that there’s a common thread in this collage of voices from around the world, a recognition of shared humanity, and a desire for open and honest communication as opposed to the fear-mongering sound bites we tend to hear on the nightly news.”

One key difference between Howes’s “Project” and CNN is that its anchors are credited as “listeners” instead of interviewers. Three of the documentary’s hosts — poet Bao Phi, probation officer Bob Roeglin and Breck School history teacher Carrie Lennox — are based in Minnesota, while the fourth, human rights activist Han Shan, is a New Yorker who has helped Rikshaw with publicity. The team’s approach to distribution is to maximize the potential for audience involvement through screenings at festivals and educational institutions where Q&A sessions can be included.

“Success to us isn’t getting the film into the Mall of America multiplex,” Howes says, “but bringing it to Americans who can think about global citizenship and talk about what it means.”

To this end, the “Fearless Filmmakers” screening at the Oak Street will be followed by a party across the street at Stub & Herbs. Free drinks and food will be on hand here, though “Fearless” coordinator Bobby Marsden says he expects that an equal draw will be the evening’s topic of conversation: “What do you think of America?”

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