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A British Actor Reexamines The American Dream

The River’s Paul Blackthorne took to America’s back roads to reexamine the American Dream in the economic downturn. The resulting documentary, This American Journey–made with Fahrenheit 911 editor Todd Woody Richman–should hit the festival circuit during this election year.

Nearly four years ago, British actor Paul Blackthorne and a film crew traveled across the United States in search of how Middle America was redefining the American Dream in the wake of the economic downturn.

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After all, Blackthorne had a taste of it–emigrating from the U.K. to land on such shows as NBC’s Lipstick Jungle, Syfy’s The Dresden Files, and, currently, ABC’s The River. But his travels through the developing world and awareness-raising photographic exhibits remained sobering counterpoints to the Hollywood scene. So a reexamination of First World expectations seemed a natural combination of the two extremes.

Blackthorne and a crew spent a month driving through 16 mostly Southern states en route from New York to Los Angeles, interviewing residents along the way. It was just days after Barak Obama’s 2008 election with its promises of “change,” and their quest was to better understand what this change meant to average Americans. The result is This American Journey, a documentary Blackthorne is producing with editor Todd Woody Richman (Fahrenheit 911, Bowling for Columbine, Capitalism: A Love Story), that is currently in post-production.

“America presents to the rest of the world that anything you want is possible,” says Blackthorne. “You pursue happiness and off you go. You’re supposed to want to get things. But as wonderful as it is to have an open, expansive mind about anything being possible, there’s the belief that this hardcore pursuit of things–money, property, homes–is supposed to make you happy. So when the housing bubble burst, people were, ‘Back up, what happened here?’ People lose the reality of the American Dream. So the question becomes, ‘What makes you happy?'”

Blackthorne’s crew included Australian photographer Mister Basquali, plus a cameraman, and sound engineer. They carted along a Sony HD camera, as well as Super 8 and still Nikon FM2 film cameras, “because we’re old farts.” Blackthorne had met Basquali a mere three weeks before departing, when he wandered into Smooch Café in Brooklyn, which Basquali owns. “We barely knew each other,“ says Blackthorne. “Now we’re best friends.”

The journey was as improvised as its planning. “We’d hear about a good diner in Louisville and go there,“ says Blackthorne. ”We’d drive along a country road and see something interesting. We even picked up a stray puppy we named Bodhi, who became the fifth member of our group.”

This is not the first time Blackthorne trained a camera on troubled communities. He occasionally exhibits his photographs from remote travels to raise money for environmental, social, and medical causes. Perhaps his most notable was the London exhibit, Indian Bollywood Backpack–photographs he took while shooting the 2001 Bollywood film Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India, which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. ”A year after I left, a massive earthquake killed thousands in Gujarat, where the film was shot,” he says. Exhibit proceeds went to the British Red Cross to help the people of Gujarat.

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”There’s a case of Affluenza on the planet–if you’re affluent, you’ll be happy,“ says Blackthorne. But his subjects’ reevaluation of success brought a comforting antidote. “It was amazing how much good sense and wisdom they had about knowing how to live and be happy,” he says.

Check out the slideshow for more of Blackthorne’s photos.

About the author

Susan Karlin is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles, covering the nexus of science, technology, and arts, with a fondness for sci-fi and comics. She's a regular contributor to Fast Company, NPR, and IEEE Spectrum, and has written for Newsweek, Forbes, Wired, Scientific American, Discover, NY and London Times, and BBC Radio.

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