In 1991 Reed Paget was huddled in a dark hotel room in Israel with ten strangers, waiting for Iraqi bombs to fall. Paget wore a gas mask and held a 16-millimeter camera. In the accompanying narration to this climactic scene of his documentary Amerikan Passport, he confesses, “I’ve never felt more alive.”

Just two years earlier Paget, 23 and full of budding lefty angst, had been in his final year at Washington’s Evergreen State College when he decided to hitchhike around the world with a camera. “Before I left, I’d been politicized by Manufacturing Consent,” he says, referring to the documentary on the radical and linguist Noam Chomsky. “I saw an insane travel adventure as a way to get a mass audience while addressing issues kept off the nightly news,” such as how corporate economic interests have dominated American foreign policy: “Young kid thinks he can make a Huck Finn political drama.”

Amerikan Passport, which opens the Chicago Underground Film Festival on Friday, is part adventure travelogue, part polemic, part analysis of man’s bloodthirsty nature. Paget quickly found he had a knack for being at the scene of momentous historical events: Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, apartheid violence in South Africa, the American invasion of Panama. In three years of travel, Paget traveled across five continents and 12 war zones, shedding his youthful idealism in the process. Yet the film is often funny, the violence interrupted by encounters with such disparate characters as Nelson Mandela, televangelist Robert Tilton, globe-trotting heiress Stephanie DuPont, whiskey-swilling Cambodian soldiers, and Bianca Jagger. Overlaid with Paget’s narrative, the result is a juiced-up road movie modeled after Ross McElwee’s idiosyncratic documentary Sherman’s March.

Despite the danger, discomfort, and a nasty encounter with intestinal parasites, Paget says finishing the movie was more arduous than shooting it. He moved here and kept the film in a refrigerator for a year while raising funds and studying for his MFA at the School of the Art Institute. He received cash from a pool of small investors and a grant, which allowed him to process the film and begin editing the footage.

As Paget worked to bring the narrative threads together–charming romance, hard-core diatribe, backpackers’ guide to tourist-free locales (tip: go to countries known for land mines)–he struggled to make sense of his own politics, which drifted toward the center. “Maybe instead of seeing the cold war as an either-or question–America’s either exploiting the third world or saving it from communism–it’s both,” he says. He uses interviews with citizens of the former Soviet Union to defend his ideological shift, but he still feels unsure about it. “Maybe there is no clear right answer….We have to deal with that murky, ambiguous, paradoxical, problematic reality.

“People start out good,” says Paget, invoking Freud. “But they have a problem: they’re going to die.” Shots of the Roman Colosseum, Mayan altars, modern rituals of animal bloodletting, and Easter pageantry insinuate that mankind has always been a murderous lot. To cope with their fear of death, Paget says, people kill literally or symbolically through cultural means such as watching horror films or rubbernecking at car accidents. He even admits in his narration, “I was getting off on going to war zones.” Perhaps that’s the real dilemma here: something far beyond the reaches of CIA infiltration, corporate greed, and American-backed banana republics, something eternal inside everyone. “There’s this intuitive sense that…blood lust is at the core of the contemporary civilized world,” he says.

Paget says that reaction to the film, which won the best documentary prize at the Slamdance film festival in Utah, an alternative to the concurrent Sundance film festival, has been “very generational. People in their 20s love it–the generation without a war that wants a don’t-trust-anyone-over-30 experience.” He plans to continue playing the festival circuit in search of a distributor; meanwhile he’s toiling as a cameraman for a 24-hour news network in New York. “I refuse to live a mundane life.”

Amerikan Passport screens tonight at 7 and 9 at the Village Theatre, 1548 N. Clark. Admission is $10 to the earlier screening, which includes the postshow opening party; the 9 PM showing is $6. For information on the festival, see the critical guide in Section Two or call 773-866-8660. –Joy Bergmann

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.