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'The American Future' on BBC America

The documentary asks: How did we get here? It is set against the presidential election.

January 19, 2009|Alicia Lozano

British historian Simon Schama never expected Barack Obama to so thoroughly wipe out the Democratic competition during primary season. But as he watched history unfold while filming his latest documentary "The American Future: A History," Schama prepared for the unexpected.

"This was not going to be an election of business as usual," he said. "Very likely this was going to be an election where Americans would ask themselves, 'How did we get into this sorry mess?' "

Using the elections as a backdrop, Schama set out to answer that very question in his latest project, which airs as a two-part series today and Tuesday on BBC America. The DVD hits stores Tuesday.

"The American Future" weaves through the nation's interior, exposing conflict and trepidation in a country still fighting to understand itself. Schama traveled the United States over nine months, digging deep into American history and deciphering what is at stake for the future.

War, religion, immigration and the environment emerged as key topics.

"I had a strong feeling from going to places where I sometimes lecture and talking to white, Christian Republican moms and dads," Schama said about his inspiration. "Their sense of unhappiness with what's happened to this country was so sad."

Split into four episodes, "The American Future" is textured with interviews, historical footage and sweeping cinematography to illuminate the U.S. landscape. He visited such cities as Las Vegas and San Antonio but also stopped in Dearborn, Mich., and in Oklahoma to create a more complete portrait. He met farmers and migrants, liberals and conservatives who were united in their concern for the country's future.

Yet the documentary, which takes a sobering look at a nation poised for change, was actually created with foreigners in mind: Four million Britons tuned in when the documentary premiered across the pond just before the U.S. elections, Schama said.

"Great changes can happen with great elections," he said. "The world wanted an America they remembered from Kennedy. They wanted a version of America they liked again."

Though Schama has lived in the U.S. since 1979 when he left England to teach at Harvard University, he continues to marvel at the country's internal struggle.

An acute cultural observer, Schama thinks that the United States is entering an introspective stage, filled with regret, hope and anxiety.

The documentary is his personal look at the country during this precarious phase, he said, and an attempt to interpret America's history for outside observers who are sometimes impatient and unforgiving.

"The last eight years have reinforced the assumptions of America as cowboy and military power," he said. "But one thing that gets me is the thinness of European reporting. It is very much the commentary of convenience."

A professor of art history at Columbia University, Schama has created more than 30 documentaries for BBC. Even after so many years as a scholar and filmmaker, he is continuously amazed by America's ability to reinvent itself and beams with pride that he was here to witness Obama's historic election.

"However cynical, however corrupt, it's always possible to engage people in the political process," he said. "This is my love song to America."

--

alicia.lozano@latimes.com

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