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Film As World Ambassador (Cheesy title, I know)

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Mar. 30th, 2011 | 10:41 pm

In the 21st century, our worldview is primarily shaped through popular media. While books, magazines and music each contribute to our understanding of other ways of life, film is arguably the medium that reaches the largest, most diverse audience. The moving picture is an anomaly as it is free from the restrictions of language yet allows each viewer a personal and unique experience. While other forms of media can effectively convey the mystique of far off lands, the moving imagine has the most immediate impact by engaging the senses and emotions simultaneously. This mish mash of stimuli allows the viewer to develop a temporary intimacy with the subject at hand. Whether the information has been presented accurately is rarely called into question. Movies don’t so much teach as they do enthrall. Because moving pictures are so captivating it is easy for viewers to inaccurate stereotypes. For example, most of the major studio releases set in Africa in the 2000’s focus on war and bloodshed (Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland). While these are all excellent films, they have chosen to project only one aspect of the African experience.

Film is unarguably the world’s most popular and colorful ambassador. Marshall McLuhan’s famous utterance that “the medium is the message” is apt in explaining why the motion picture has such a huge impact on shaping our world view. We are reassured and comfortable with the familiar faces on screen and so we follow their journey into treacherous terrain. We gasp as the actors dodge the poacher’s bullet, ward off the most foul inhabitants of the jungle and manage to come walk into the sunset unscathed, and marvel at how well fed and groomed they are after having undergone such trying circumstances. And why shouldn’t we trust that the images that engulf us for 2 hours of our life are anything but accurate? We will never live the scenarios that have just played before our eyes and, most likely, will never see any of the exotic places in the story first hand.

Film and the Collective Conscious
It is not unusual for a scene or actor from a film to become so deeply emblazoned in the popular imagination that even people who have not watched the movie can immediately identify the image. For many westerners it is impossible to imagine the Arabian Desert without recalling Peter O’Toole riding across the shimmering landscape accompanied by Omar Sherif and an unforgettable score by Maurice Jarre. And what image is more iconic than John Wayne riding off into the sunset or Clint Eastwood outsquinting his opponents as he squares off before the final gun battle? One could argue that these stereotypes only last as long as the collective memories of the moviegoers themselves. The internet has all but obliterated the shared experience so that images are consumed in an isolated and highly controlled environment. Whether the internet will obliterate long held stereotypes created by Hollywood is yet to be seen.

What we do know is that the motion picture can convey almost any idea regardless of the accuracy or basis in reality. Movies have been used as propaganda pieces with the intent of forwarding a political agenda (as with Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) and to gain popular support and boost morale in times of war (as with Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, which was created in direct response to Triumph of the Will). While the modern viewer might find these films boring or sanctimonious, they neatly convey salient points of each ideological argument. There is no question in the viewer’s mind that Reifenstahl took great pains to portray Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich in a favorable light. The grand, sweeping shots of military drills and parades, the crowd’s reaction to Adolph Hitler speaking and the imagery of Nazi banners and monuments all cement the terrible power and authority of Hitler and his regime. Without so much as firing a single shot, the Nazi’s effectively showed the world who they were and what they stood for and they did it in less than two hours.
Fortunately, most movies are not made with the same questionable intent of Triumph of the Will. Though movies have often perpetuated harmful stereotypes (as in the case with the portrayal of African Americans in cinema up until the mid 1950’s) they have also been responsible for introducing audiences to foreign cultures and ways of life.

Mother India and Gandhi
Released in 1957, Mother India became the highest grossing Bollywood film of the time and the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Often called “India’s Gone With The Wind”, Mother India tells the story of the hardships faced by Rhada, a woman who has fallen into a crippling cycle of poverty due to a loan that she must repay to a dishonest moneylender. Rhada is given the chance to have the loan forgiven if she marries the moneylender, but she spurns his advances. Rhada’s dignity is repaid by even harsher treatment from the moneylender and the loss of both of her sons. Her circumstances are tragic, but Rhada is shown as a respected figure in her village. She is able to convince the other villagers to stay and help her rebuild after a flood sweeps through, killing her youngest children.

Filmed in Technicolor with elaborate dance numbers and sumptuous art direction, Mother India was the first Hindi movie to receive worldwide distribution. The director, Mehbob Kahn, was a pioneer of Hindi cinema who directed and produced over 20 films. A true stalwart, “Mother India” is a remake of the 1940 film Aurat which was also directed by Mehbob Kahn (A Salute). World movie audiences could experience the sights and sounds of rural India, including the filmi score (Indian popular music written specifically for films) from the comfort of their neighborhood theater. The film also exposed audiences to the hardships faced by women in rural India both at the hands of their families and town officials.

India is also the setting of Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic Gandhi. Ben Kinglsey’s portrayal of the Indian political and civil rights leader Mohandas Gandhi earned him a well deserved Academy Award. From pioneering the nonviolence movement to working toward and finalizing independence from the British, Gandhi’s life and work unfolds beautifully under Attenborough’s direction. While there has been much written about Gandhi the man and Gandhi the political leader, Ben Kingsley’s portrayal allows a first hand glimpse into the life of a 20th century icon. A historical biography come to life, Gandhi allows the viewer to experience the turmoil of India in the early 20th century.

The fact that both actor Ben Kinsley and director Richard Attenborough are British does not throw the story into obsolescence (in contrast with, for example, the use of black face by white actors in the early 20th century). It is simply a side note to illustrate how rapidly history is made, recorded, mythicized and remade. Film is better at exploiting the temporal structure of popular morals and attitudes better than any medium before or since. Consider films that are made solely to exploit the changing cultural phenomenon, such as the cinema of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Many of these productions were little more than hastily churned out exploitation pieces, greedily cashing in on the nation’s changing attitudes toward promiscuous sex and drug use (Film).

Lawrence of Arabia
Mythicism is king in the world of the motion picture. If the mention of the Arabia Peninsula immediately conjures up white sand dunes stretching into flat, letterboxed infinity, it is not a mere coincidence. The epic Lawrence of Arabia has, for better or worse, provided the film going public the choicest desert outcroppings and most lavish government buildings with which to entertain their fantasies of the Middle East. That all of the building exteriors were shot in Seville, Spain is the cinematographer’s well kept secret (Film Locations).
David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece follows the life of T.E. Lawrence during the First World War. Lawrence has been selected by the British government to meet Price Faisal and assess Faisal’s impending revolt against the Turks. Lawrence, however, is not a man to simply assess. From the opening minutes of the film, we come to understand that T.E. Lawrence is something of a rebel. He earns Faisal’s trust by proposing a daring attack on Aqaba, a coastal town in Southern Jordan that will serve as a supply point for the rebellion. Crossing the Nefud Desert (a high point of drama in the film that highlights Lawrence’s dogged determination) Lawrence persuades the leader of a powerful local tribe to join he and Faisal on their mission. Eventually, Lawrence succeeds in helping push the Turkish out of Damascus, thus (temporarily) securing the city for the Arabs.

Peter O’Toole was a newcomer to film when he won the chance to play T.E. Lawrence. Much taller than the real Lawrence (at a difference of about eight inches) O’Toole’s blue eyes, blond hair and flowing white garb all contribute to his character’s messianic aura. Lawrence is portrayed as an eccentric English savior who is torn between his loyalty to Britain and his friendship with his Arabian allies.

The Last King of Scotland, Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond
In the 2000’s, three major Hollywood films focused on the bloodshed and political turmoil in Africa. Hotel Rwanda (2004), Blood Diamond (2006) and The Last King of Scotland (2006) each recount the recent, tragic history of a continent.

The Last King of Scotland tells the story of Idi Amin, Uganda’s infamous dictator and mass murder, from the perspective of his Scottish personal physician Nicholas Garrigan. Nicholas moves to Uganda in pursuit of adventure. While there, he befriends and becomes the personal physician to Idi Amin. The viewer watches Uganda unravel through the eyes of Garrigan. Shootings and executions in Kampala are explained away by Amin as being necessary to secure lasting peace. It is only when Garrigan becomes involved with Amin’s youngest wife that he begins to question the atrocities taking place in Uganda.

Hotel Rwanda, set in1994 during Hutu – Tutsi genocide, is a biographical account of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel owner who saved the lives of over 1000 people by hiding them in his hotel. As the political situation in the country worsens, Paul and his family watch as neighbors are slaughtered in ethnic violence. Paul gains the favor of influential officials in his town, bribing them with money and alcohol in an effort to keep his family safe. When civil war breaks out and a Rwandan Army officer threatens Paul and his neighbors, Paul barely negotiates their safety. He hides refugees in the hotel, many who arrive from the overburdened United Nations camp. Paul’s story is a show of strength in the face of extreme daily violence. It is an act of redemption in a chaotic and brutal environment.

Edward Zwick’s 2006’s Blood Diamond is set in Sierra Leone during the 1996 – 1999 Civil War. Blood Diamond is the story of white mercenary Danny Archer who trades arms with African warlords in exchange for diamonds that he then sells to a well known diamond company in South Africa. Danny is imprisoned in Liberia and where he meets Solomon Vandy, a Sierra Leonian fisherman who has been enslaved by a local warlord to work in the diamond mines. Vandy knows the whereabouts of a large diamond that has just been discovered and Archer arranges for their release from prison and uses the promise of reuniting Solomon with his family in exchange for locating the diamond. Along the way, Archer has a change of heart and allows Solomon and his family to escape with the diamond while he holds off encroaching rebels in a dying bid for redemption.

These films show the greed, violence, chaos of countries that have fallen into the hands of greedy men. They also highlight the strength of personal character in the face of adversity. In the 21st century, these are increasingly becoming the popular images of Africa broadcast around the world. Villagers suffering at the hands of rebel groups of military juntas who perpetuate unspeakable acts of violence.

In its role as world ambassador, film shapes our knowledge of people and places. It has the ability to reveal, teach and challenge. If used in a critical and objective way, film can be an invaluable tool in helping us sort out the world around us. The motion picture reaches its highest form when it can both entertain and enlighten and do so in an emotionally profound way. However, if used incorrectly, it can simply reaffirm stereotypes and foment hatred. So much propaganda has relied on the emotional components of film that one wonders how the Nazi movement may have fared without Triumph of the Will. Films reflect not only our personal wishes and desires but they help us to better understand the loves and lives of people worldwide.

Works Cited
"A Salute to Mother India and Poetic Justice." TheBollywoodFan. Web. 08 Dec. 2010. <http://thebollywoodfan.blogspot.com/2008/08/salute-to-mother-india-and-poetic.html>.
“Film Locations for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)." The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations: Film Locations around the World. Web. 09 Dec. 2010. <http://www.movie-locations.com/movies/l/lawrence.html>.
“Film and Culture." Web. 11 Dec. 2010. <http://www.framepoythress.org/frame_books/tatm/chapter2.htm>.

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