An intended travelogue that turned into a survey of international hot spots by an evolving left wing war junkie, “American Passport” is an engagingly personal but annoyingly superficial account of a young Yank’s increasingly obsessive encounters with mankind’s penchant for brutality and bloodshed. Visually lively docu makes a nice fit for fests and alternative theatrical and campus-oriented venues due to its quaintly ’60s-ish political biases, which are reflected for starters in the way that pic’s posters and printed material spell title’s first word as “Amerikan” (normal spelling is used onscreen). Homemade-style film copped the best docu award at the Slamdance fest.
Reed Paget was 23 in 1989, when he left Seattle with the intention of photographically documenting locations relating to the seven wonders of the world. First stop was China, where he was teaching English when protests broke out and martial law was declared. Sneaking around surreptitiously with his camera, Paget grabbed some his eventual film’s most memorable images in Beijing, including a fierce windstorm sweeping through a crowded Tiananmen Square and haunting shots of bodies and burning tanks after the army finally clamped down.
After smuggling his footage out to Hong Kong, Paget proceeded to Vietnam, then to Cambodia, where, despite many warnings and the lack of visas, he and a young femme Brit journalist visited Angor Wat. Arrested but released, Paget hightailed it back to Seattle, where his grandfather, who served in intelligence in China during World War II, gloats over the myriad failures of communism but is basically ridiculed in v.o. by his idealistic grandson.
But by this time, Paget was addicted to the excitement of revolt and social upheaval, as well as to the ancient sites of human sacrifice. In 1990, he was in Nicaragua for the failed second presidential bid of Daniel Ortega, backgrounded by the shenanigans of the Contras, and, by the time he passed through Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama (then heavily occupied by U.S. troops) and Peru, he found himself pulled irrevocably into the political (read anti-Yank) arena.
At the halfway point, pic lands in South Africa at a time when Nelson Mandela had only recently been released from prison, and a political resolution to the social tensions was far from settled.
Stopping in Rome only long enough to ponder the massive organized violence that once took place in the Colosseum, then at Auschwitz to consider even larger issues of inhumanity, Paget was now like a heat-seeking missile headed for the numerous other locations then in the midst of conflict or tremendous change: Germany during unification, Moscow for glasnost, Cairo and finally Israel, which was as close to the Gulf War as he was able to get. Apparently it was close enough, as the arrival of Scuds finds him catching the first plane back to Seattle.
Paget’s footage is amateurish but vibrant and has been put together in an appropriate low budget package that includes some nifty travel animation. More problematic is his approach to information and politics. Admittedly unschooled, Paget undertakes considerable man-in-the-street interviews, but one scarcely ever knows who’s doing the talking unless he/she is an official of some kind. In general, he’s inclined to feature simplistic leftist remarks, such as those of the Brit journo blaming the excesses of the Khmer Rouge on the brutality they experienced at the hands of imperialists, a masked German youth who predicts that West Germans, who are all “fascists,” will overrun Eastern Germany, and his own opinion that it may not be any worse for Saddam Hussein to control half the world’s oil than for the U.S. to do so.
Except for coming to grips with his own fascination for the inhumanity of war and mankind’s annihilistic streak, one gets the impression that Paget didn’t mature that much on his voyage, or learn significantly as a result of his privileged exposure to major historical events. In Moscow in 1990, he’s astonished to find nothing but anti-communists — “There seem to be more communists left at Berkeley than there are in Moscow,” he observes — but he never pauses to speculate why that might be and proceeds to end the film on a glib note that once again emphasizes America as police state.
It’s an impressionistic, rough-hewn, idiosyncratic work that throws off a montage of strong images but is content to remain on the surface rather than delving into the complexity, ambiguity and paradoxes that inevitably underlie political and historical situations.