The documentaries “Super Size Me” and “Fahrenheit 9/11” have energized the box office in recent weeks. Another one hits theaters today: “America’s Heart & Soul,” a collection of vignettes about ordinary Americans living extraordinary lives.
Released by Disney’s Buena Vista Pictures, the 84-minute film was shot, produced and directed by Louis Schwartzberg, a distinguished veteran in the motion picture business.
Schwartzberg spoke with EthicsDaily.com Wednesday on the phone from his office in Los Angeles.
Born in Brooklyn, Schwartzberg credits his family history with much of the drive for his success.
“My parents were Holocaust survivors,” Schwartzberg said. “They survived Auschwitz and came to this country with nothing and gave me a lot of opportunity to pursue my education and dreams.”
Schwartzberg eventually earned a master’s in theater arts from UCLA. He directed dozens of commercials for major corporations and founded the popular Energy Film Library, which he sold to Getty Images in 1997.
Schwartzberg then set up BlackLight Films to produce TV programs and feature films. “America’s Heart & Soul” is a BlackLight production.
The idea for “America’s Heart & Soul” goes back 15 years. Schwartzberg said he began collecting stories and vignettes about interesting people across the country, even though he wasn’t sure what he would do with them.
But the documentary, or what he prefers to call “a real-life visual experience,” eventually coalesced. When Schwartzberg and his crew of eight finally began rolling film on his 35mm camera, it took two and a half years to shoot.
The result is a fascinating collection of Americans from all walks of life: a horse wrangler, rug weaver, gospel musician, dairy farmer, steel worker, firefighter, wine grower and many more unique individuals whose stories cinematically unfold.
“We finished it just before 9/11,” Schwartzberg said, adding that he then spent almost two years editing the film and getting the music together.
“That’s when I finally got Disney on board to release it,” he said. “I was lucky enough that I got Jake Eberts, who was my executive producer, to set up a screening at Disney.”
“America’s Heart & Soul” is the first documentary feature released theatrically by Disney, which found itself in brouhaha earlier this year when it declined to release Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
The Disney connection has prompted some commentators to view “America’s Heart & Soul” and its director as a sort of antidote to Michael Moore’s scathing indictment of American policy.
“I’m definitely not the opposite of Michael Moore,” Schwartzberg said, adding that whether one agrees or disagrees with the politics of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” any prodding for genuine debate is a good thing.
“It’s wonderful to have debate and freedom of speech in this country,” he said. “The last thing we need is censorship.”
Schwartzberg also doesn’t want people to censor his movie, so to speak, by pre-judging it as somehow being in reaction to “Fahrenheit 9/11” and therefore declining to see it.
Instead, he sees “America’s Heart & Soul” as a worthy follow-up to Moore’s project, and one that he hopes will keep viewers talking and discussing.
Schwartzberg said viewers should “be aware of the thematic elements” in the film, some of which he said were freedom, family values, work ethic, eccentricity, overcoming adversity, ancestry, immigration, and believing in your dreams.
Schwartzberg said the film will mean different things to different people, so discussion is important.
He said he wants people “to take their families and go see the movie and have a fun, entertaining time. And be able to afterwards discuss it with their friends and family. And talk about what the movie means to them. Because it’s going to mean something different to everybody.”
“Maybe you teach Sunday school or maybe you coach little league or maybe you’re helping with environmental cleanup,” he said. “I think you’ll see a part of yourself in this movie.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie’s official Web site and trailers are here.
Get a free download (PDF) of the movie’s Activity Guide.
“America’s Heart & Soul” is rated PG for mild thematic elements.