International development according to Hollywood

International development is just about at the bottom of the list of things that the average American thinks about each day.

Foreign bureaus are closing for major US news sources. One of the big 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 Kony 2012 and Oxfam advertisements, how are people learning about the world around them if they are not reading the news? 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 for why the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme was put in place a decade ago. The film brought in $171 million despite mixed reviews.

City of God
City of God

Recognizing the influence that Hollywood has on bringing the issue of development to the American household, a group of researchers decided to analyze what these films actually tell viewers about development. It is easy for critics to dismiss popular representation of development. There are reasons to be concerned with the oversimplification of issues related to poverty and conflict. The authors say they are aware of this, but challenge that 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 like Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardner. They point out that they hope to analyze films from global south countries such as India, Nigeria and South Korea that also depict development. Popular films hold potential to bringing forward development issues, but can easily misinform viewers, they say.

“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,” say the authors.

Aside from the film Beyond Borders staring Angelina Jolie, Hollywood films deal with development as a facet of the larger plot. Examples include war, conflict and violence, humanitarianism, commerce, poverty and politics. That leads to a wide range of films that includes the James Bond film Casino Royale and the war drama The Hurt Locker. The humanitarian issues act as what famed British film director Alfred Hitchcock called the “MacGuffin.”

The MacGuffin is the device that moves the plot of the story, but is not a main part of the story. Kevin Costner’s character 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 cause action in the story, but they help the audience get from start to finish.

Constant Gardner

Development in popular film often does the same thing. It is positive in the sense that audiences are exposed to newer issues, but the way that the issues are used are explicitly meant to fade out for the viewer. 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 specifically the characters played by George Clooney and Julia Roberts. The MacGuffin in Blood Diamond is the diamond, but the circumstances of Sierra Leone also act as a plot driver, but it is the characters and a budding love story that are what the audience is meant to connect with by the end.

Using conflict in the plots can help inform audiences as long as stories steer clear from binary good-evil characterizations. The film about the Rwanda genocide Hotel Rwanda is cited as an example of a film 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 Hutu ethnic group.

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 testimonials and 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 visually appealing and powerful stories can make some concerning sacrifices that oversimplify issues related to development. Reaching wide audiences with less reported issues 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.

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About Author

Correspondent Tom Murphy is a Boston-based reporter for Humanosphere. Tom is a prolific writer-blogger and editor of the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy(at)humanosphere.org.

  • Hmryder

    Bit earlier than the rest of these, but “dirty dancing” has a classic development MacGuffin with baby’s plan to study the “economics of underdevelopment studies” and join the peace-corps. Interesting to be able to classify the different ways that development comes in.

    • http://aviewfromthecave.com Tom Murphy

      The fact that you just references Dirty Dancing is all kinds of awesome and illustrates a good point.

  • Tanya Cothran

    Did you see the new book, “Hollywood’s Africa after 1994″?
    http://www.amazon.ca/Hollywoods-Africa-after-MaryEllen-Higgins/dp/0821420151

    • http://aviewfromthecave.com Tom Murphy

      I did not, but it is now on my reading list.

  • David Lewis

    Thanks for writing this excellent piece!
    Just to say though that we’re not ‘a group of World Bank researchers’ … Michael works there (but was actually working on this project as part of his wider non-WB research agendas), while Dennis is an academic at Glasgow University and I’m at LSE.
    David Lewis

    • http://aviewfromthecave.com Tom Murphy

      Sorry, David. I will make the correction. Thanks for letting me know about my error.