Film and the Third World

Cinema has emerged as the most alluring and expensive communications medium of the century. No other art form has been disseminated so effectively, or has appeared to transcend so many national and cultural boundaries. Unlike other art forms, films are created solely for mass distribution. Every member of every audience can witness "the real thing."

Television technology and exhibition entrepreneurs have introduced cinema to both rural and urban audiences in many developing countries. However, most cinema distributed internationally is produced in the United States and Europe. This fact, combined with the universal recognition of film's power to "sway the hearts and minds of men" has aroused concern. Since the 1960s, discussion of film as an instrument of "cultural imperialism" has been intense, if largely theoretical. The key issue is succinctly stated by Herbert Shiller: "What does it matter if a national movement has struggled for years to achieve liberation if that condition, once gained, is undercut by values and aspirations derived from the apparently vanquished dominator?"

Film: Economic Survey

Cinema was invented in Europe and North America. The United States quickly gained control of the market once sound pictures were introduced; few other countries could afford to modernize their production facilities as rapidly.

By the early 1970s, the world produced about 3,500 motion pictures annually. Although only five percent were of U.S. origin, American films occupied 50% of screen time in the so-called "Free World". This situation has not changed greatly.

The marketing success of American films and television is largely due to the Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA), a consortium of American companies that includes Allied Artists, Universal and Warner Brothers. One-half of the revenues of these companies comes from abroad.

The sales position of the MPEA is strengthened by the meager resources of Third World production companies. Because of the expense of producing films, it is generally cheaper for a Third World nation to import an American television series or buy a package of US films than to make their own. For instance, in the Philippines, an entire highly-rated US series costs US $1,000-2,000 to buy, while a single show produced locally costs US $800-2,400.

Moreover, local productions have a reputation of being technically inferior. As a result, many movie-goers in the Third World prefer to see technically slick foreign films than badly shot domestic efforts. Western films therefore have a large share of screen time in such countries as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Turkey, Thailand, South Korea, Brazil, and Mexico. In Malaysia, foreign films account for 99% of the market. In Thailand foreign companies monopolize distribution; for years local producers have had to bribe theatre owners to get their pictures shown.

Many would argue that Third World nations face more urgent tasks than financing filmwork. However, indigenous artists and producers in these countries stress the relationship between mass media and economic realities. They argue that films and television programs like Dallas and Love Boat (both now popular throughout the world) glorify values inappropriate for their countries. The transmission of these Western values, perceived as antithetical to the traditional concerns of many indigenous groups, will eventually shape the political and economic aspirations of Third World populations and distort their perceptions of life in the West. If such aspirations cannot be satisfied by local governments, many fear political repression will increase.

Media and Acculturation

Film proffers different messages for every audience and incites unique responses from every individual; thus, few critics have been able to gauge the impact of film either on individuals or an entire audience. Few studies have been able to demonstrate the influence of film on the formation of social roles and interaction in Third World communities, and even less attention has been paid to the use of film in endorsing or changing existing power structures within nations or between ethnic groups or political factions. What research has been undertaken in these directions has produced uncertain conclusions and contradictory theories.

Some observers argue, perhaps naively, that if native culture satisfies the needs of a people, small societies will remain impervious to the values encouraged by foreign media. This theory ignores the impressiveness and novelty of film and television in non-industrialized communities and the potency of film's impact when combined with other Western influences ranging from imports to tourism.

Other cross-cultural studies have found that exposure to Western media increases villagers' drive for individual achievement and education and heightens a capacity for empathy. This finding is significant; for while Third World villages are gaining increased access to Western films and video, most Westerners have little opportunity to view the realities of Third World villages and gain a corresponding empathy. Foreign films available for release in the US are generally made in Europe, often with American financing. US money is masked in dozens of films that appear to be "British," "French," or "Italian". "Empathy," therefore, is to the West's "advantage."

Lerner and Fry also observed that media-watching made villagers more receptive to the introduction of technological innovations. Many fear that villagers are equally receptive to advertising and have become especially vulnerable to the promotion of Western products.

Third World Response

In an attempt to inhibit cultural imperialism, many governments have attempted to encourage national industries and orient domestic filmmaking around national development and ideological goals. Regulating agencies, frequently called "national culture bodies," may be powerful censoring agents or ineffectual symbols of control. Most protectionist policies include restricting foreign ownership and imports, through taxation, bans and censoring; regulating screen content; and subsidizing local filmmakers.

All too often, attempts to control the industry prove impotent. Government subsidies of local production may increase the volume of production, but not necessarily the quality of films.

Theatre owners may resent government attempts to regulate their screen content. Brazil, for example, requires theatres to show one Brazilian feature for each 8 foreign films, but because no precise length is specified, theatres often screen five-minute local shorts and two-hour-long foreign films.

In 1944, under Peron, Argentinian exhibitors were ordered to screen local films 40% of the time, a quota domestic producers could not satisfy.

In some cases advertising interests can conflict with government policy. In Pakistan, for example, theatre owners run approximately half an hour of advertising during a feature. Frequently, exhibitors will replace the government-required short news documentaries with more advertising, especially if the government also taxes ticket sales.

But even if screen quotas are filled, another difficulty - that of encouraging original indigenous artistic vision - remains. Many Third World films plagiarize Western formats; even filmmakers with the best intentions absorb a Western aesthetic through study abroad or exposure to the plethora of Western films at home.

Movies that do address indigenous concerns may not address the concerns of minorities. For the most part, minority programming cannot be mass produced, causing it to be financially unviable. As Sidney Head has observed:

There is no mass market for the syndication of serial plays in Kupsbiny, documentaries in Amharic and traditional songs in Tambouri. It is the hard facts of economics rather than neo-imperialist conspiracies or failures of local imagination that account for program importation.

What minority programs are produced usually cater to the dominant, ruling minority of the country in question. Amharic documentaries are a case in point. They would bear little more relevance to most Ethiopians than foreign imports.

Third Cinema and Foreign Expansion

The most radical response to the structure of the film industry in the Third World has come from a group of Third World artists and producers who make what has been labeled Third Cinema.

Third Cinema aims to "decolonize the minds" of its viewers by focusing on Third World historical, social, and political realities. Thus, cinema artists like Africa's Sembene and India's Satyajit Ray turn their attention to such themes as modernization, neo-colonialism, political corruption and the clash between tradition and modernity.

These artists are also adamant in condemning the creation of zones for expansion of the US communications industry, holding that this expansion is the principal obstacle to the development of the independence and social progress of developing countries.

The responsibility for this expansion lies in public as well as private hands. The United States Information Agency (USIA), a federal organization with 7,800 employees worldwide and an annual budget of US $667.7 million, uses a wide variety of media to promote U.S. interests abroad. In 1982, USIA distributed 195 films and 158 video products overseas. Unless Congress votes otherwise, these materials cannot be shown in the U.S.

In addition to film distribution - which is carried out by USIA's Foreign Service information officers at US missions abroad - USIA controls the Voice of America which broadcasts to 100 million listeners worldwide. USIA also publishes 10 magazines and several commercial bulletins in 18 languages.

The coordinated efforts of Western agencies, private and public, create a hostile environment for the distribution of Third World cinema. To date, these films are seen primarily by elites in the developing world and audiences in the art-film houses of New York, Paris and London.

The only other vehicles for messages from the Third World are ethnographic films which attract equally small audiences, and whose content, usually directed by Westerners, is hotly debated.

No depiction of indigenous people of the Third World is, however, more offensive than Hollywood's. Only recently have commercial Western films begun to revise their stereotyping of Native Americans and foreigners. In the 1930s, for instance, Latin women's slightly darker skin allowed them to play any minority. Lupe Velez, a Mexican film star in Hollywood in the '30s once commented that she has portrayed "Chinese, Eskimos, Japs, Squaws (sic), Hindus, Swedes, Malays, and Javanese".

Hollywood's carelessness began to change in the '40s, however:

By 1949, the twenty Latin American republics represented almost one-fifth of the total foreign markets for U.S. films. Memories of a burned-down Argentine theatre after a showing of Argentine Nights as well as audience riots in Latin America forced Hollywood to realize they could no longer win foreign audiences if they presented stereotyped or derogatory versions of the Latin character. This led the Motion Picture Association of America to establish an International Information Center in Los Angeles. This advisory hoard hoped effect the deletion from motion pictures of any elements which might reasonably be expected to offend the sensitivities of foreign peoples (and) include in motion pictures elements that may be regarded with pleasure and approbation by foreign peoples. Its third purpose is to attempt to prevent any distorted presentation of the American way of life in such a fashion that foreign audiences might draw generalized conclusions about the country.

While Mexican bandits, fiery Latins, Oriental seductresses, and Uncle Tom Blacks may be film figures of the past, tribal people are still depicted as savage, primitive, backward, and archaic in most commercial films.

The lure of the exotic has enticed many Western film crews to remote locations, and their practices vis-a-vis native communities, unprotected by unions or governments, have raised serious issues. The production methods of Werner Herzog during the making of Fitzcarraldo are a case in point. However, Mr. Herzog's exploitation of tribal communities in the Amazon did not impair the warm reception of Fitzcarraldo in the West.


As Third World countries struggle to create a "national culture" as an antidote to Western domination, an increasing number of minorities are being denied national artistic representation. Some Mexican and Brazilian filmmakers have gone so far as to adopt North American Indian stereotypes as their own, depicting Native Americans in their countries in full war bonnets similar to those of the Sioux Nation of the upper midwest United States.

Care must be taken by governments to decentralize support for filmmaking, to permit a voice to those unable to struggle to artistic meccas. The answer is not only to censor Western imports - which people in the Third World enjoy for the same reasons as people "at home" - but to encourage domestic and foreign cinema to reflect a multiplicity of global truths and realities.

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