Hollywood Diplomacy – How the stories it tells matter
‘And believe it or not, entertainment is part of our American diplomacy. It’s part of what makes us exceptional, part of what makes us such a world power. You can go anywhere on the planet and you’ll see a kid wearing a “Madagascar” T-shirt. You can say, “May the Force be with you” — they know what you’re talking about.’
BARACK OBAMA, 2013
We all have to agree, it does not happen every day that a country would threaten another with a nuclear attack because of a movie release. However, with The Interview, upcoming American comedy about assassination of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un, US-North Korean diplomatic relations did not get any better. Perhaps, one could identify this as an overreaction, nonetheless, it clearly proved that stories Hollywood presents, affect the opinion about country and can influence the diplomatic efforts.
Moreover, despite an arguably less important role of the cinema in diplomatic practice comparing to more conventional approaches, one has to recognise that Hollywood international role has only grown since early decades of the Cold War. The American cinema has been always caught in the political firestorm and mirrored the power shift. Due to its popularity among publics, it has become a useful tool for advocating public policies.
For instance, the list of anti-communism motivated movies produced since late 40’s and during 50’s kept on growing, and until now one can see the majority of Russian-speaking characters being portrait as negative. Nonetheless, the (soft) power of the film has been apparent since then. Infamously scrutinised ‘Hollywood Ten’ as well as many others producing movies, which do not align with American foreign policies over decades, has been accused of inserting pro-communist messages into the movies such as Red Scar, or M*A*S*H* series.
The role of the film in public diplomacy has however expanded since then. Firstly, in the last decades, the American film box shifted its focus to portrayal of the ‘American dream’ to the rest of the world. It has become a strong advocate for positive image of the country. As Irina Orlova, an Ukrainian immigrant to US points out, watching American films during the 80’s in at-that-time Soviet Ukraine, presented the US as very pleasant and happy place of endless opportunities. And therefore, as Barack Obama noted in his speech as Hollywood’s Dream Works studios, the cinema has become a strong actor in USA’s public diplomacy. It not only brings American culture directly to homes of the whole world, but also translates this culture in a very effective and informal way, which is in many ways inaccessible to the diplomatic envoys. Moreover, by adjusting its focus and character of the movies, Hollywood’s production has been able to win hearts and minds of publics in countries, where direct diplomatic engagement would not be possible couple of years ago. For instance, out of 10 top movie ratings in China, 6 of them come from Hollywood production.
However, there lies yet another diplomatic role of the American cinema abroad. This type of cultural diplomacy has worked reciprocally. Not only that the US has been able through movies improve its own image, production of movies showing other cultures in positive light have widened its impact. Hollywood has been praised for its Seven Years in Tibet, Kung Fu Panda sequel, or retouch on the Red Dawn villains (transforming them from originally Chinese to North Koreans). Hence, on one hand, American public influenced by its media and film industry gets a glimpse of other cultures, on the other hand, promoting other cultures have won the Hollywood and therefore, the US yet another argument in building its image.
However, as mentioned above in North Korea’s case, and moreover with famous Kazakhstan’s instance. American sense of humour, has damaged not only world’s perception of the country (such as Borat movie’s footprint on Kazakhstan’s image) but moreover it can in particular cases hinder the diplomatic ties (for example North Korea-US on various occasions or Iran-US after release of Argo). Therefore, as much as Hollywood seems to help the US to improve its image after rather damaging 1990’s-2000’s War on terror era, one has to be careful about occasional backfire it can cause and stir the foreign affairs once again.
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