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The Reel World: Film & Development Knowledge

Uwimana Basaninyenzi's picture

I’ve never been to Colombia nor do I have the slightest idea of what it’s like to be involved with drug lords smuggling people across borders, but I remember what it was like to watch Maria Full of Grace, a movie about a pregnant Colombian teenager that agrees to become a drug mule in a desperate attempt to support her family.  Following Maria’s journey from the streets of Bogota, where she worked in sweat shop like conditions at a flower plantation, to the illicit world of the drug trade that transports her to the city of New York, was an incredibly intense and emotional experience for me. Yes, I am a crier and this movie was both terrifying and tearful. But outside of the emotional appeal, did it provide me with an education on Colombian society? Was it a true depiction of criminals exploiting the vulnerabilities of the poor? Did it shape my view of international drug enforcement policies in the U.S.? These are the type of questions that authors of a new World Bank study entitled, The Projection of Development, try to answer in their compelling research on the interface between cinema and development.
By examining an interesting range of historical and contemporary films that touch on a wide variety of development issues—such as poverty, urban violence, conflict and war, and human rights—this paper explores the power and limitations of cinematograhic representation as an authoritative source of development knowledge. It focuses primarily on dramatic films rather than documentaries. Interestingly, it draws on a selection of popular films that have been successful in the global north, including City of God, The Constant Gardner, Missing, and The Year of Living Dangerously. As noted in the report, the authors are acutely aware of this northern bias, but they hope to encourage further research that will explore films from India, South Africa, Nigeria, and South Korea, among other places.

When some people think of popular films like the ones examined in this report, they may not think of them as a significant source of development knowledge. But this paper challenges that notion. It argues that popular representations of development need to be taken seriously, despite the limitations of simplifying what can oftentimes be complex issues. For purists who insist on capturing all the nuances of a particular development issue, this might not fly. But for someone who lives in Kansas, never lived outside the United States, and is rarely exposed to development topics, a night at the movies watching Blood Diamond is not just another opportunity to catch the next Leonardo DiCaprio flick, but it may be an important chance to gain insight on the political volatility of Sierra Leone in the 1990s.
Now I’m no purist, but to be quite frank, the thought that a film like The Gods Must Be Crazy has the potential to shape someone’s entire thinking on southern African societies is a bit unsettling for me. But as shown by the authors, this same medium has the potential to represent issues concerning poverty, conflict, and justice in an immediate, compelling, and empathetic way. Along with this potential, the authors provide some interesting insight on the power of context in film. They argue that the representational power of a film lies in the extent to which an audience has prior knowledge of the contexts and events being depicted.  In illustrating this point, they compare two critically acclaimed films set in India, Gandhi and Slumdog Millionaire. They note that in the movie Gandhi, the film focused on an individual’s political trajectory, but did not offer much about wider Indian society and context. Whereas in Slumdog Millionaire, the film explicitly offered a grittier neo-realistic depiction of contempapory Indian society.
Well, I’ve only touched on a few really interesting arguments made in this report and would encourage you to read it for yourself. It makes an important contribution to what is an important topic: the power of film to improve the way development policies are debated.

Photo Credit: Flickr user Instituto Akatu
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Submitted by Anne Dronnier on

Thank you for your post on such an important and interesting topic. I did not know about the "Projection of Development" report and I look forward to reading it this week-end. I flipped through it, for now, and noted a sentence that summarized my view on the situation with movies on development topics (especially in Africa) : " .... the divide between rich and poor – or more precisely, between Westerners and “locals”, as most of the films we discuss tell their stories from a Western point of view – is arguably the key concern in most films that can be categorized as “development films.” (p.6) Fortunately,non-Western filmmakers are increasingly making their voices heard abroad, in spite of lack of budget and business connections. In Africa for example, thousands of movies (good and bad) are produced every year, showing a different Africa, from the most serious - such as some of the features presented at the film festival FESPACO (Burkina Faso) to the most light-hearted - produced in Nollywood (Nigeria.) Thank you, Uwimana, for starting a conversation around this new report and on the power of art (visual arts and others) to inform people, to move them, and sometimes to prompt them to take action to promote change.

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