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Friday July 25, 1997

     Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn are two young local filmmakers who decided to take off for six months to discover if the American Dream was still alive as the 20th century draws to a close. They returned with a documentary for a time capsule. Of their ambitious and rewarding project, they remarked, "The legacy of the American on the road is largely male, from Lewis and Clark to Steinbeck and Kerouac. We felt it was time for some women to get behind the wheel and see what we could find."
     The delightful, sometimes humorous yet thoughtful result of their efforts is "Anthem," in which they talk to nearly 30 people, some famous, some obscure, to find out what's on their minds. Two major concerns emerge: the need for Americans to conserve natural resources and to take ecological issues very seriously, and the loss of faith in political leadership. Not surprisingly, many individuals express abiding concerns for racial and economic justice as well.
     Gabel and Hahn, who display plenty of enthusiasm and a refreshing lack of cynicism, discover that the idea that the American Dream may really be "the freedom to dream" and that the country itself may well still be coming into being. "Anthem" is a film diary, informal and spontaneous, and it captures a sense of the places through which the filmmakers travel in an everyday rather than travelogue way. Interviewing people in their own settings, interrupting, in effect, their daily lives, goes a long way toward keeping "Anthem" from seeming to be a mere collection of talking heads.
     Not all of the film's people are rich and famous, but they are all articulate. The most vivid presences, on the whole, turn out to be white males. Unfortunately, no Asian Americans are represented in the film, nor are any homeless people.
     Gabel and Hahn discover that even those who have dedicated their lives to social, economic and political change--and know how hard such struggles can be--aren't about to throw in the towel. Jack Healey, former head of Amnesty International and founder-director of the Human Rights Action Center, believes that "the American Experiment . . . is one of the great runs of what freedom can mean." And Studs Terkel, while deploring the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots, says, "Am I optimistic? Not very. Am I hopeful? What alternative is there?"
     Terkel is one of the film's stars, a man who has spent his life trying to discover what makes people and society tick. Others are Robert Redford; John Perry Barlow, founder of the Electric Frontier Foundation, cyberspace's first advocacy organization for cyber rights and a Grateful Dead lyricist; and R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe. These are men whose celebrity has led, instead of self-absorption, to serious thinking about the world and society in which they live.
     Redford deplores the "sad, pathetic ignorance" that permeates American life and its leadership in particular. Barlow takes an all-inclusive view in which environmental and libertarian issues are intertwined. Stipe worries that the fading of the authority of spiritual and political leaders has led the public to make heroes of sports figures, movie stars and musicians like himself. What he's doing, he says, is "not a real high calling."
     What a contrast between the self-effacing Stipe, who did not let an emergency hernia operation keep him from his appointment with the filmmakers, and reclusive Hunter S. Thompson, who kept them waiting for days before agreeing to sit still for their cameras. Once there, however, Thompson opened up. Like Terkel before him, Thompson was full of praise for George McGovern, whose interview provides the film with its cautiously encouraging conclusion.
     Acknowledging the drastic toll on the American psyche exacted by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., McGovern says that his political faith "still rests on the conviction that through reason and common sense you can move the American public in a constructive and worthwhile way."
     There's a great deal of wisdom in "Anthem," so much, in fact, that Gabel and Hahn might well have been a tad more selective. At four minutes over two hours, "Anthem" begins to wear out its welcome, as worthy an endeavor as it is.

Anthem, 1997. Unrated. A Zeitgeist Films presentation. Writers-producers-directors Shainee Gabel and Kristin Hahn. Executive producer Jo Ann Fagan. Cinematographer Bill Brown. Editor Lucas Platt. Music supervisor Randall Poster and Tony Margherita. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes.

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