Right at the start of the 12-part documentary series On the Road in America, which begins airing Wednesday on the Sundance Channel, we are shown how different the lives of the film’s four main characters — three 20-something men from Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and a Palestinian woman, also a member of the film crew — are from our own. Mohamed, a 27-year-old med-school graduate from Jordan, who lives in Beirut, arrives in Washington, D.C., for the start of filming with only the clothes he’s wearing — it’s the summer of 2006 and Hezbollah and Israel have just gone to war in Lebanon. Twenty-two-year-old Ali reveals that he doesn’t separate Bush’s disastrous foreign policy from the feelings of everyday Americans: “They are the ones who elected Bush, correct or not?” Lara, the Palestinian director’s assistant with the fetchingly crooked smile and a keen sense of humor, watches news reports of Israel’s bombing of Lebanon — where she’s been living — and remarks, “Israelis, I hate Israelis.” As you may already know from NPR and other reports on the series, which first aired in the Middle East last year, Lara re-evaluates her views after a few open back-and-forths with the show’s Israeli cameraman, Guy.
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While there’s an MTV-ish type of reality-entertainment pleasure in watching this attractive, engaging and sharp-eyed foursome crisscross the U.S., looking to fill in gaps in their knowledge and, yes, getting a kick out of New York sightseeing, a Mississippi fish fry and a Chicago softball game, the series was devised with the serious intention of helping to change perceptions of American people and experiences. Such moments, like when Lara says to Guy, “I never, never, never imagined that I’d have this conversation with someone like you,” sell the venture by touching on the consciousness-raising power of an honest exchange.