Visible Evidence 2021

Moving Image Diplomacy and Democratic Crisis: Unpacking the Legacies of the USIA/USIS

Mark Williams
Bret Vukoder
Hadi Gharabaghi
Fri, Dec 17
90 Min
Mousonturm (Rehearsal 1), Online
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Legacies of USIA Moving Images Through International Lenses

This presentation will detail the “Legacies of USIA Moving Images Through International Lenses” project which will bring together a team of international scholars who are committed to developing studies of the USIA in relation to the tools of The Media Ecology Project. It will describe the rationale and strategies for the team to collectively study the motion picture activities of the USIA, including the
agency’s considerable investment in developing media infrastructures of film production training, audio-visual centers for media consumption and distribution, and innovative exhibition practices around the world.

The USIA was the primary public diplomacy and propaganda office of the United States during the Cold War. USIA films represent a diverse and idiomatic series of topics and aesthetic approaches. Roughly 20,000 motion picture titles were created or distributed by the USIA, in more than 50 languages spread over 150 countries for an annual audience that numbered as high as 600 million. A substantial number were made and distributed regionally by non-American persons in collaboration with American agency officials. Indeed, the majority of creative and administrative labor behind the making, distribution, curation, and exhibition of USIA films and television programming happened outside of the United States.

The ongoing growth of access to this previously fugitive archive represents a context of unprecedented opportunity for the study of primary texts of historical visual culture and moving image diplomacy. One key methodology will be the production of granular analyses of hundreds of USIA films that engage perspectives from multiple areas of the world.

Mark Williams

Dr. Williams is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at Dartmouth College and director of The Media Ecology Project which is developing a virtuous cycle of new interdisciplinary scholarship about archival media that adds value back to participating archives. He has published widely on media history and historiography, and has been developing USIA studies via MEP since 2017. In March, 2021, Prof. Han Sang Kim (Ajou University) and Prof. Williams co-hosted a conference on the theme of “Excavated Footage”, asking how collections such as that of the USIA collection at NARA may define new progressive and post-colonial historiographies.

Documentary Legacies in the “Unattributed Media” of the Afghan Media Resource Center

This presentation will explore the history, moving image output, and legacy of the Afghan Media Resource Center (AMRC), seeking to parse the complex political, technological, and aesthetic ecosystem surrounding the Center’s creation between 1985-1988 to help delineate the unique documentary idioms within AMRC’s extensive footage.

Six years into the Soviet-Afghan War, the U.S. Information Agency initiated a program to train local mujahideen in documentary techniques with portable video cameras. The USIA’s Film and Television head at the time, Alvin Snyder, believed the conflict could become the “U.S. government’s made-for-TV movie.” Yet at that point, according to Snyder, the war was “Moscow’s Vietnam without reporters.” With the intent to circulate images of Soviet aggression and leverage the footage as evidence of the superpower’s decline, the agency sought to gather “authentic” on-the-ground footage of both the war and the plurality of cultures throughout the region.

Launched as “Operation AFCAM”, the USIA (with Boston University) trained its first class of 100 students at the AMRC in February 1987, sending “courageous” audiovisual teams into all parts of the country shortly thereafter. This first class translated nearly 500 hours of moving-image footage into narrative documentaries and footage for journalists. These “unattributed” images were particularly valuable for the USIA, as they could be disseminated within major television news platforms, including domestic networks. By 1988, however, Haji Doud established local control of the AMRC, continuing its operations through 2012 and creating an incredibly rich, essential document of the Afghan people across two wars of invasion.

Bret Vukoder

Dr. Vukoder is an instructor at the University of Delaware in the Department of English and a Research Associate at Swarthmore College. He recently earned his Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. His research primarily concerns the history and extant archives of the U.S. Information Agency’s moving image operations. He co-directs the USIA pilot within Dartmouth’s Media Ecology Project (under Mark Williams) and is currently co-editing (with Hadi Gharabaghi) a special issue of the Journal of e-Media Studies on USIA moving image history, to be published in 2021.

USOM in Israel: Negotiating a Binational Audio-Visual Center (1953-1959)

This presentation investigates the emergence of an audio-visual center in Israel in 1954 through negotiations between the United States Operation Mission USOM/Israel and the Information Service of the Israeli government. By the mid-1950s, the US government’s documentary diplomacy planners actively promoted binational audiovisual centers as institutional infrastructure for producing training and public relations films.

William Lowdermilk played a key role in establishing the audio-visual center. He worked with the Syracuse group in Iran as audio-visual specialist since 1951. Lowdermilk had traveled with his father, who worked for the US government as an agricultural specialist, since WWII. He engaged with Ina Maria Semanek, a Iranian-born and a USIS/Iran staff whose parents had resided in Iran as Hungarian refugees for twenty-five years. Lowdermilk requested proper paperwork so he could marry Ina and move to Israel and use the skill he had accumulated in Iran toward setting up the country’s audio-visual center.

Once stationed in Israel, Lowdermilk set up meetings with involved government officials and gradually started the development of several documentary projects. Establishing a central audio-visual center, however, proved to be a challenge. Two major obstacles involved the demand by Israeli government for a state-sponsored motion picture unit and pressure from the private film production sectors against a fully government-staffed documentary diplomacy program. This presentation makes a point that while USIS local branches actively promoted central documentary infrastructures, especially in newly formed states, the unfolding of documentary diplomacy operations fully depended upon local negotiations.

Hadi Gharabaghi

Dr. Gharabaghi’s archival research has focused on the declassified USIA paper-trail at NARA II regarding the early history of the formation of the USIA and the emergence of documentary diplomacy in the United States, Iran and the broader region during the 1950s. He is an adjunct assistant professor at Drew University. His publications on the genealogy of documentary diplomacy in Iran and the Arab world brings scholarly attention to the largely ignored role of media in relation to diplomatic relations, and the neglected production histories of the USIA as the infrastructural means of civic media discourse during an earlier history of democratic crises.