When you first hear director Peter Hegedus' voice in the opening moments of his documentary My America, it may take a few moments to adjust to its strangeness. While it sounds Australian on an immediate level — he moved there in his teens and still lives there today — it soon begins to exhibit an odd twinge, which you will learn is evidence of his upbringing. Hegedus was born in Hungary in the 1970s, the grandson of András Hegedus, the Communist prime minister of the country who was deposed during its 1956 revolution.
The filmmaker's parents divorced when he was a child, and he remained in Hungary with his mother as his father temporarily relocated to the United States, returning for visits with American candy and toys. An awkward, bullied preteen, Hegedus found comfort in American films, Schwarzenegger and Stallone-driven stuff where the good guys (typically representing the United States) defeated the bad guys (usually the evil commies). The celluloid sparked a fascination with the Free World, which Hegedus pursues in this film. But the oil-hungry, debt-loaded America of today is no longer the big-action Reagan-driven America that Hegedus fell so in love with, and in My America, Hegedus has to come to terms with this realization.
It takes about a half-hour or so for the film to really get settled. In the beginning third, we learn who Hegedus is in an animated sequence, treated with an appropriate mixture of delight and cynicism. But as the film progresses, and as history presents itself, Hegedus becomes more and more pessimistic about the post-9/11 U.S., especially after George W. Bush sent American troops to Iraq to take down Saddam Hussein. And while the election of Barack Obama brings along new "hope," the rippling effects of the collapse of the U.S. economy takes its toll on those around the world, from a childhood friend of Hegedus in Hungary to his own sister, an employed homeowner in L.A. whose life slowly unravels.
While at home in Australia, Hegedus decides to build a booth — more like a tent — and travel the world, inviting passers-by to voice their wishes for the newly minted president. Stops include his native Hungary, China, Hollywood Boulevard, and eventually Kenya, where he spends time in a Somalian refugee camp. His ultimate intentions are to deliver the messages to Obama, something Hegedus struggles to achieve during the film. At the same time, he shows us examples of different American dreams fulfilled, like the Hungarian son of Holocaust survivors who becomes a top political advisor in the U.S. And then there are the dreams that failed, like those of the family living in a mission on skid row and eventually his own sister.
In My America, Hegedus attempts to reconcile his personal American dream with reality, but that's a very complex idea that obviously can't reach a full conclusion in 90 minutes. At first, the director has difficulty figuring out how to focus in on one aspect of America's failings, eventually reasoning (with the help of a well-researched document) that because America has taken on the role as the world's superpower — funding wars whether it actively participates in them or not — then it is America's responsibility to take care of the people of the world as well. And as he discovers, that's impossible.
American viewers of My America, almost regardless of their political proclivities, could easily see Hegedus' logic as unfair — and one American woman in the film even flat out says so. Yes, this country has its faults. But as a Hungarian-Australian, Hegedus has the luxury of watching from the outside, and he doesn't have to shoulder the burden of such a role like the rest of us living in this country.
My America is a well-made film, and there's an appropriate amount of humor in it, but also a lot of sadness. The documentary tackles a complicated subject that is almost too vague to get a good grip on, though Hegedus tries his best. He makes a lot of good points, and visits a lot of interesting places, and lets the audience learn things they may not already know about the world. But as an American, a viewer may feel a sense of guilt as potshots are taken at our government, whether they're deserved criticisms or not. Hegedus wonders if the United States should be doing more to help the world, and the audience will wonder that as well, but how much responsibility can we take upon ourselves when our own country is crumbling?
That question can be answered on Fri. April 6 at 8 p.m., as Hegedus brings My America to the Olde North Charleston Picture House (4820 Jenkins Ave.) as part of a cross-country tour.