Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Cultural Diplomacy through Hollywood films

Exporting Hollywood films to other countries can promote a better understanding of the American culture. In our class discussion we touched the issue of film a couple of times in the context of soft power and cultural diplomacy. And yet, while the medium film itself has a great promise to capture an audience, there is another component that should not be overlooked. When screened in other cultural contexts, the impact of a film can alter from offering an insight to American culture to arousing negative emotions and, in the worst case, offending another culture.

Last week, a Hollywood delegation was invited to join the Iranian Cinema Association. AP reported on March 2:

The group includes the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Sid Ganis; actors Bening, and Alfre Woodard; producer William Horberg; AMPAS Special Events Programmer and Exhibitions Curator Ellen Harrington; and Tom Pollock, the former Universal Pictures chairman.

Although, from a cultural diplomacy viewpoint, it was a valuable gesture to invite the Hollywood delegation to come to Iran, the meeting also provided an opportunity for Iranians to communicate specific problems that the culture has with some Hollywood movies.

An adviser to Iran's president has demanded an apology from a team of visiting Hollywood actors and movie industry officials, including Annette Bening, saying films such as "300" and "The Wrestler" were "insulting" to Iranians.

Without an apology, members of Iran's film industry should refuse to meet with representatives from the nine-member team, said Javad Shamaqdari, the art and cinema adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Iranians mainly criticized two Hollywood films: 300 and The Wrestler.

The film "300," portrays the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., in which a force of 300 Spartans held off a massive Persian army at a mountain pass in Greece for three days. It angered many Iranians for the way Persians are depicted as decadent, sexually flamboyant and evil in contrast to the noble Greeks.

Iranians also criticized "The Wrestler" starring Mickey Rourke as a rundown professional wrestler who is preparing for a rematch with his old nemesis, "The Ayatollah." During a fight scene, "The Ayatollah" tries to choke Rourke with an Iranian flag before Rourke pulls the flagpole away, breaks it and throws it into the cheering crowd.

This recent example underscores the impact of cultural predispositions on the way films are perceived and interpreted and shows that cultural diplomacy is never just about show casting a blockbuster. One problem lies in the few options to control this process. “Neither movie was shown in Iran”, states the AP coverage. And yet, new technologies and communication structures have made it possible for Iranians to access the movie.

Hollywood movies are produced for a mass audience which is first of all an American audience. In a second step the movies are exported to other countries – and this mainly for profit and not for diplomacy reasons. While Western countries, such as Germany, might have a similar cultural background and therefore share some overlapping values and reactions to the movies, other countries, which are more different from the US, might refer to a different value system and therefore react differently to the films.

Overall I think it is a complex process. Hollywood movies offer a great promise to bring American culture to other countries; however, they can also reinforce negative impressions and perceptions that other cultures have about the US.

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