Documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi readily admits it: A lot of documentaries that you see on TV are about what’s wrong with America.
That’s why her newest doc is so exceptional. It’s about something that actually works pretty well – the system by which immigrants become naturalized United States citizens. Her new film – her seventh in 10 years for HBO – is called “Citizen U.S.A.: A 50 State Road Trip” and it premieres, appropriately, on the Fourth of July (9-10 p.m./8-9c on HBO).
“Every documentary that’s ever made is about something that’s wrong with America,” Pelosi said on the phone from her home in New York’s Greenwich Village. “How about if we make a movie about something that really works? That was kind of contrarian – almost like punk rock to make that movie! People were like, Wow, you’re going to say nice things [about America]? People think if there’s no friction [in a documentary], there’s no substance.”
For the film, Pelosi toted a video camera to citizenship ceremonies in all 50 states, where she captured the often homespun ways various states choreograph the “swearing-in” ritual in which diverse immigrants officially become Americans.
They come from just about everywhere – and when they get here, they settle everywhere too. “You see a lot immigrants [when you live] in New York,” Pelosi said, “but you don’t expect to see a lot of them in Butte, Mon. I went to Kansas City – they had a huge ceremony in Kansas City. Who knew immigrants were flocking to Kansas? And not because they had to – they chose to!”
Her 50-state road trip took a year – organized in regional trips, according to when the various states conducted their naturalization ceremonies. For example, to visit a number of western states, she stayed for a while at her parents’ home in California and traveled from there. Yes, Alexandra Pelosi is related to that Pelosi: California Rep. Nancy Pelosi (formerly Speaker of the House) is her mother.
Her famous name may have helped her gain access to some other famous people who are interviewed in the film, but not all of them. In the “50 States” documentary, these include a handful of well-known immigrants – Madeline Albright (born in Prague), Henry Kissinger (born in Bavaria) and Gene Simmons (the Kiss rocker was born in Israel). Well, maybe she scored the Simmons interview all on her own.
The fact is, this documentary started out as an exercise in interviewing famous immigrants – which is why these interviews are included. But, as Pelosi explained, it was HBO’s documentary film chief – Sheila Nevins – who suggested that she travel to all 50 states to interview ordinary new citizens, in order to make a better film.
Nevins was right. Their uplifting interviews are so eloquent that they make this film the perfect thing to watch on the day we celebrate America’s birth.