The following post is from the Guardian's Africa Network.
International development is just about at the bottom of the list of things that the average westerner thinks about each day. News organisations are closing their foreign bureaus. One of the big US television networks turned down more money for global health reporting after a series, entirely funded by grants, led to a dip in viewers. In other words ratings were so bad that the network turned down millions of dollars. It is that tough.
Aside from advocacy efforts like (the much-criticised) Kony 2012 and Oxfam advertisements, how do people learn about the world around them? The answer could be Hollywood. Reporting on Africa does not get much attention in the US, but a film staring Leonardo DiCaprio about Sierra Leone does.
A film like Blood Diamond, setting aside its problems, brings a big audience to the story of Sierra Leone's civil war. Most people have likely heard of blood diamonds before, but the film provides an easy to understand explanation of the Kimberly Process, and the reasons for its instatement. It also brought in $171m, despite mixed reviews.
Recognising the influence that Hollywood has, a group of World Bank researchers decided to analyse what these films actually tell viewers about development. It is easy for critics to dismiss popular representations of complex issues. There are reasons to be concerned about the oversimplification of causes and effects of poverty and conflicts. The authors say they are aware of this, but say popular depictions need to be taken seriously given the audience that they reach.
David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock set aside documentaries and focus only on dramatic films from the global north that depict development such as Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardner. They conclude that popular films have potential to bring development issues to the forefront, but can easily misinform viewers.
"Although we argue that films can be a legitimate and potentially important medium for representation, both intrinsically and instrumentally, we also highlight issues and problems in the underlying nature of their particular representational power, as well as the inherent ambiguities associated with films as fundamentally contextualized forms of representation," they say.
Aside from the film Beyond Borders, staring Angelina Jolie, Hollywood films usually deal with development as a facet of the larger plot. Examples include war, conflict and violence, humanitarianism, commerce, poverty and politics, which provide the setting for films such as Casino Royale and The Hurt Locker. The humanitarian issues often act as a plot device, what famed British film director Alfred Hitchcock known as the "MacGuffin".
The MacGuffin is something that moves the plot of the story along, but is not really a central focus. Kevin Costner's character in a Field of Dreams descends on a journey of personal discovery and reconnection with his father when he hears a voice telling him to build a baseball field in his Iowa cornfield. The field and its impact on his failing farm are the MacGuffin, helping the audience get from start to finish.
Development in popular films often does the same thing. This is useful in the sense that audiences are exposed to important issues, often for the first time, but the issue usually fades away by the end of the film. By the end of Ocean's 11 the money is not what the audience cares about. They are entangled in the relationship between the group and George Clooney and Julia Roberts's characters. The MacGuffin in Blood Diamond is the diamond, but the circumstances of Sierra Leone also act as a plot driver. Yet it is the characters and a budding love story that the audience is meant to connect with by the end.
Using conflict in plots can help inform audiences, as long as stories steer clear from binary good-evil characterizations. Hotel Rwanda, the film about the genocide, is cited as an example of a movie that blurs the lines between obvious good and bad people. There are problems within each of the groups of people ranging from the UN to the Hutus and Tutsis.
Despite being generally plagued by an audience-appealing imperative to juxtapose relatively clear fault lines of good and evil, the best films in this genre seek to complicate these categories. They suggest that the very fluidity and ambiguity of virtue and vice at any given time and place may itself be a factor driving human tragedy, even as it can also, occasionally, provide narrow windows of opportunity that the fortunate, the persistent or the deftly strategic can exploit.
Films produced in developing countries, such as City of God (Brazil) and Slumdog Millionaire (India), tend to be received by western audiences as being closer to reality. The critically acclaimed City of God depicted gang violence in Brazil's slums in a way that oversimplified an increasingly complex and difficult situation. Such a film, say the authors, can influence poor policies by foreign nations.
Much like the discussion surrounding Kony 2012, the paper points out that the sacrifices required to produce a tightly plotted narrative often oversimplify issues related to development. Reaching wide audiences is valuable, but problems can develop when simplification edges towards distortion.
There is also a constant and often unhealthy tension between the emphasis on individual actors and their moral and political dilemmas and the wider structural and societal factors that conditions the social settings in which these stories are told. And while films that focus on Westerners engaging with their own consciences, dilemmas and contradictory feelings towards global conflict and inequality doubtless provide instructive insights that can feed usefully into public understanding of development issues and may even (at best) contribute to raising awareness and even politicization, there is often a high cost paid in terms of the relative lack of local voices.
The researchers recommend the following "personal and idiosyncratic" selection of 51 films as a starting point for exploring the cinematographic representation of development. Happy watching:Related Articles
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Vision of Humanity is an initiative of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). IEP have offices in New York and Sydney. For more specific inquiries related to the peace indexes and research, please contact IEP directly.