Late last month I was invited to speak to high school students in Koscian and Poznan about American culture. I was delighted to return to Koscian, where the students speak great English and have insightful questions.
It’s always hard to know where to start with American culture, but I find a surefire tactic is to talk about what I know best: movies.
So I provided some background on where Americans came from, what some key cultural values are, and then I used movies most people have seen to illustrate those cultural values. Here’s a summary of what I said to the students: 400 years ago America was settled by profiteers, religious separatists, and indentured workers (slaves and the economically indentured). These settlers found a land of unlimited resources, great distance from their central government, danger at every turn, and an opportunity to reinvent themselves as they saw fit. As a result, a few of the main cultural values that these people developed over time were: 1) individualism, 2) a family focus, 3) a suspicion of government, 4) optimism (or faith, depending on your definition), and 5) teamwork. You could choose more, but these are a few of the real biggies, and they’re easy to illustrate through movies.
One could say that an American is an optimistic individualist who harbors distrust for his government and relies strongly on family support and teamwork with friends and colleagues.
Now to our movies. In 2008 six American movies made it into the top 10 box office winners in Poland. The other four – and the top two – were Polish films. You can check out the box office results here.
The American films do a good job of illustrating the very values I pointed to when I was talking at the high schools. Kung Fu Panda for individualism, Mama Mia for family, the new Bond film for distrust of government, Wall-E for optimism (ok, I cheated, it was the 11th on the box office charts), and Indiana Jones for teamwork. These films, I pointed out, do not illustrate only one core American value each. Most of them do a good job of showcasing several or all of the five I listed. But it’s also easy to see, if you just know a little about each of these films, how they do indeed show each of these American values. What’s more, I added, any cinema of any country would do the same. If you look at the four biggest Polish films of 2008, and thought about the key Polish cultural values, I’m sure you’d find them embedded in the four films. Probably all key Polish values would be found in all of the films. That’s why we love movies the world over: they speak to our values, our very identities.
I also like talking about movies because they serve as a great starting point for a conversation with students. In addition to the presentation I made, for example, we talked about Polish cinema and the great Polish directors (Kieslowski, Wajda, Hoffman, etc.) and films (Nocy i Dni, one of my favorites). And we talked about other aspects of American culture. One of my favorite questions was (and frequently is), “don’t you think American movies are un-serious, and only deal with surface issues, unlike European cinema?” No, I respond, take a look at Poland’s box office results for 2009. The truth is more nuanced. Every country makes its fair share of comedies, dramas, actioners and historical films. But what you go out to see is your choice.
Talking with students is about my favorite thing to do as a diplomat in Poland. Koscian will always have a special place in my heart, since it is the first place I spoke in public in Poland. The teachers and students are wonderful.
If you want to explore more about American film and culture, I recommend checking out http://www.afi.org, which has good lists of American films to watch that will further illustrate American values. If you’re not into movies but want to learn more about American culture, I recommend the podcast at www.thisamericanlife.org.