My first impression upon stumbling across an American balloon twister and photographer in West Africa was that their project sounded, yes, absurd, and happily so, but also a little exploitative, and in turn maybe even counter to their purported mission. I had serious doubts about the effects of two Americans collecting images of people all over the world wearing balloon hats for use in a coffee table book. It seemed too simple-minded, too obtrusive, to be any sort of meaningful social experiment. But that tension — between my doubts and their energies — was the single biggest reason I began documenting the project.

Almost immediately, traveling with the Balloonhat acted as a check on the usual attempts to downplay one's nationality on the road. In this case it was just impossible. How do you blend into your surroundings next to a guy blowing up balloons in random people’s faces? That absurd visibility, though initially difficult to get around as a documentarian, allowed me to explore people’s varied definitions of "American," and simultaneously gave them a kind of free pass to voice their more unvarnished opinions of America.

Politically free and wealthy by comparison, we were able to cross borders almost unimpeded to connect with people who often had no way out of their countries or even villages. In Bosnia, we were welcomed as liberators alongside the 40,000-strong multinational military force keeping a tenuous peace there. In Egypt, we wandered the “Arab Street,” where anti-Americanism was fueled by imams at Friday prayers, and in spite of that, had some of the most intimate and uplifting experiences as anywhere else on the road. With each passing day, I understood better the giant ironies present in other cultures’ attractions to, and repulsions from, our own.

For a variety of reasons which I hope are adequately explored in the movie, when the project returned to the U.S., the implications for its legacy took a rather surprising turn. What began to matter more to Balloonhat than the original goal of a mass-market publication was simply the process itself once again — the countless personal interactions experienced during the travels and the subsequent shared memories and cross-cultural bonds that had been formed.

Making BALLOONHAT ultimately dismantled my own belief in the conventional wisdom that statistics, sociological theory, and the monetary carrot be the first line of attack in bringing about social change. I now believe the best prospect we have for co-existence is simply our selves and, through necessity, our ability to distill common solutions from the most basic, unfiltered personal interactions. At this point it may be the only hope we have left.

— A.G. Vermouth

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