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Backroads USA (Amerikas legendäre Straßen)

Production: Maha Productions/ARTE
Year: 2013
Genre: Documentary
Length: 5 x 45
Format: HD

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No nation is more famous for its roads than the USA. Endless highways wind through endless landscapes like vital arteries. Those in a hurry take the four-lane interstates. But what is there to discover when you take your time and travel the legendary old backroads?
Academy Award Ònominated filmmaker Katja Esson (SKYDANCR, FERRY TALES) takes an affectionate and unconventional look at the backrooms of the American Dream - where it once thrived, where it is still preserved, and where it died a long time ago. Along the historical roads, in the real heartland of the nation, she searches for stories like a gold-digger searching for nuggets. By capturing the spirit of the old America she allows us to understand the modern USA: on the Mohawk Trail, the Oregon Trail, on America’s‚ Loneliest Road’ Highway 50, on the Blues Highway and the famous Route 66.
The Mohawk Trail . Native Americans created this mountain trail as footpath for trade and travel. Settlers widened it with their horse-drawn wagons. But the boom started with the invention of the automobile,  when engineers straightened and paved the road into a marvel of early engineering. It became the first scenic auto route in the United States, as famous then as only Route 66 is today. The first automobile travelers had go uphill backwards, stopping at the old restaurant in the famous ‘hairpin turn’ to get water for their overheated  engines. This entire area in the Northeast was once the industrial center of the young United States, but today these towns struggle for survival and the Mohawk Trail is almost forgotten.
Highway 61, also known as the Blues Highway, follows the Mississippi River from New Orleans high up north. Slavery, segregation and the civil rights movement shaped the land and the people in the deep South. These particular experiences found their expression in music – the blues, and led to a way of life that counters hardships with joy and hope. From the sugar cane and cotton fields in the South the music traveled north on the Blues Highway. Much of what is profoundly American has come from the Mississippi Delta, which is often called the cradle of American culture even though not many people realize it. „Work hard, play hard“ runs like a life motto for the people living along the Blues Highway.
One of the greatest land migrations in history began in the 1840’s along the Oregon Trail. More than 400 000 pioneers came across the Great Desert in search of the rich lands on the West Coast. Today it is a comfortable ride, but the pioneers in their covered wagons could barely make ten miles per day, often having to lower the wagons downhill on ropes. This survial spirit still exists in many of the people that settled along the trail. Where the Oregon Trail reaches the Columbia River the pioneers had to master the most daring part of their journey – maneuvering what used to be the wildest and most dangerous waterway in the country. History books credit Lewis and Clark with the discovery of the passage to the western coast, when in fact, Native Americans living along the river had been using these ‚Indian Highways’ or thousands of years.
The Wild West. Myth or reality? Highway 50 tells the stories. In 1848, gold was discovered in California. Prospectors, adventurers, gamblers – all rushed west. The boom turned mine camps into Western towns. Today old opera houses or brothels are remnants of the glorious past of these remote ghost towns. In Nevada, Highway 50 crosses high deserts and mountain ranges feared by early adventures. The centuries-old pathway became the legendary Pony Express Route. A century later, Hollywood transformed the Wild West into the stuff of legend when they started filming the Westerns in this dramatic landscape. But Highway 50’s most recent fame comes from a warning published in Time Life magazine in the 80’s: "It’s totally empty. Don't travel it unless you are confident in your survival skills!” Since then it is officially called: The Loneliest Road in America.
Episode 5: ROUTE 66
Iconic Route 66 runs from Chicago to Los Angeles. It has many names: 'Road of Dreams', the 'Mother Road', the 'Great Diagonal Way’. Construction began in 1926. Winding through small towns in the middle of nowhere, it made businesses thrive along the ‚Main Road of America’. But its fame as ‚Highway of Hope’ came during the Great Depression in the 1930’s, when hundreds of thousands of Midwestern farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl took to Route 66 in search of a better life in California. The fifties were the glory days of Route 66. But by the end of the decade, President Eisenhower, inspired by the German autobahn, started replacing Route 66 with the four-lane Interstate 40. By the mid-eighties, Route 66 was officially decommissioned and dead. Many of the Route 66 towns did not survive and became ghost towns. But through the efforts of a few people, the route was miraculously revived. Today, nostalgic travelers in search for the American Dream have made Route 66 immortal.


Writer, Director, Producer: Katja Esson
Concept: Katja Esson
Co-producer: Denis Poncet
Line Producer: Sabine Schenk
Directors of Photography: Wojciech Szepel, Jose Ocejo, Eric Turpin
Sound: Diego Reiwald
Music Supervisor: Olivier Conan
Composers: Matthias Falkenau, Cassis