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March 22, 2016

Around the World with Alex Ago

By Renato Ruiz

Alex Ago with local military in Georgia

In a remote region of Tajikistan, Alex Ago and a team of film experts and filmmakers transport projection equipment through mountainous terrain, determined to reach an eager audience made up of many people who have never met an American, or even seen an American film.

This isn’t a National Geographic expedition, but a meeting of cinema lovers. In Tajikistan, Ago is part of the School of Cinematic Arts team that plans and oversees the American Film Showcase (AFS), the partnership between SCA and the State Department that sends American filmmakers around the world to screen and discuss their work. Ago is AFS’ curator. For the Tajik audiences (there were several screenings) he chose Kids With Cameras, a documentary about an animation summer camp for autistic children. A connoisseur of international cinema, Ago is also on a reverse mission: to find movies from other cultures to introduce to audiences at home.

A graduate of both the B.A. and M.A. programs of the Bryan Singer Division of Cinema & Media Studies, Ago has been programming at SCA for six years. He oversees special screenings as well as Outside the Box [Office], a weekly screening series of contemporary international, independent, and documentary cinema that he describes as “a yearlong film festival.” The quality of his Outside the Box [Office] presentations made Ago a natural choice for the AFS program, which exports films that offer more realistic portrayals of American life than generally featured in the macho blockbusters familiar to international audiences.

Ago has both an insatiable appetite for cinema and a fascination with other cultures. He is right at home in the far reaches of the globe, especially when using movies to communicate. “People around the world connect with individuals and their stories,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what the context is. As long as they can identify with someone, it has an effect—a powerful effect.” Sometimes the effect is overwhelming. At the Kids With Cameras screening in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, things got “very emotional,” says Ago. “A lot of mothers came with their autistic children and used the film as a springboard to discuss the many obstacles faced by families in Tajikistan who live with this condition. There’s a fair deal of sweeping the issue under the rug and not supporting education and social services for families that have autistic children.”

Even if he wasn’t working at SCA, Ago would probably still be traveling the world to watch movies. He developed a love of international cinema as a teenager, working as an usher in a popular art house theater in Washington, D.C., his hometown. Growing up, he also spent time in Europe, visiting his Italian father—a diplomat based in Rome—and traveling around the region.

Not surprisingly, Ago clocks as many hours on planes as he does in front of screens (sometimes doing both at once). Outside the Box [Office] has showcased mini film festivals from India, Italy, Ireland, and across Latin America. It also regularly screens projects from SCA alumni and faculty. Screenings are free and open to the public. Recent films include the award-season frontrunner Room, Michael Moore’s latest documentary Where To Invade Next, and The Assassin from acclaimed Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao-hsien. The films are usually followed by Q&As with the filmmakers who travel from around the world to attend.

A talented curator, Ago chooses films that cover a variety of issues while showcasing the cultural touchstones of their places of origin. And while he’s a true world traveler in the physical sense, it is his global sensibility towards all cinema that makes his work shine. “My taste in film has developed alongside a lot of contemporary world cinema,” he concedes. Then adds, with a grin: “But I also love blockbusters.”