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Cinema and Development

April 3, 2011

It’s no longer unusual to hear terms such as ‘grassroots cinema’ and ‘participatory filmmaking’ becoming a part of popular lexicon. A recent article in The Guardian titled ‘What role can film play in development?’ poses the question “can documentaries and feature films further debate on development and widen popular engagement? Or are they trapped by conventions that dumb down and dramatise complex issues?”

This is a question I often ask myself particularly after the saturated popularity of a film such as Slumdog Millionaire. The film stirred considerable debate about whether it objectified urban poverty and slum conditions in Bombay. It also received criticism for glossing over the highly contentious issue of communal tensions in India and perhaps most importantly it raised a vital question; what are the strengths and limitations of feature films as a medium for raising awareness of development issues around the world?

Personally, a film like Slumdog Millionaire did not teach a student of international development such as myself anything out of the ordinary but then does it really need to? Yes, it does draw the attention of Western audiences to poverty in urban settlements, child rights and corruption but in doing so it offers a glimpse into just one aspect of development. It fails to highlight how macro forces such as urbanization, industrialization, communal politics and migration amongst others lead to social and economic inequality in the first place. The narrative was undoubtedly situated in a particular socio-economic context but the issues it claimed to highlight simply assisted in portraying a captivating Bollywood style love story. We cannot tout it as being instructive in any way since it doesn’t offer any evidence on which to base any sound analysis or policy on complex issues. It offers a specific point of view, which is particular to a time and place and conveyed by a script-writer and film-maker who are not apolitical entities.

While there are numerous films that have dealt with themes in development, it is often films that are not consciously setting out to address a particular issue that can make powerful statements through their fictional narratives. Two feature films from Latin America have struck me as being unpretentiously valuable and informative in depicting human experience and struggles and framing how we think of development in a less conventional way.

The first being Amores Perros, which portrays the contradictions of cultural modernity and globalization in contemporary urban Mexican society. These contradictions are represented through three parallel stories interwoven by the tragic events of a car accident in Mexico’s bustling metropolis. It is particularly interesting to note that the gritty socio-economic realities portrayed in this movie relate very closely to the notion of ‘culture of poverty’ in cultural anthropology. In the 1960s anthropologist Oscar Lewis coined the term ‘culture of poverty,’ to describe an urban subculture that is “a way of life, remarkably stable and persistent” which has its own modalities and distinctive social and psychological consequences for its members” that applies to those who are at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale…” Lewis’s thesis was based on his ethnographic fieldwork among poor families in Mexico City. His notion that the “poverty of culture is one of the crucial traits of the culture of poverty” as applied to Amores Perros helps understand the social and economic forces that are shaping the lives of individuals in a rapidly globalizing and urbanizing Mexico City.

The second film that I found profound in many ways is Memorias del Subdesarollo (Memories of Underdevelopment), a 1968 Cuban film that explores the liminality of post-revolutionary Cuban society. Set in Havana, beginning around the time after the Bay of Pigs incident and culminating at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, it traces the period of a year in the life of Sergio, a self-styled bourgeois intellectual who stands at the cross-roads of Cuba’s recent tryst with socialism and the emptiness of his own existence. Due to its combined use of a fictional narrative as well as documentary footage and still photography, the film is both symbolic and somewhat allegoric. What does “underdevelopment” signify in this film? This is open to interpretation but while we typically perceive underdevelopment in terms of poverty and socio-economic indicators, the film invites us to think of underdevelopment through the lens of changes in societal relations, through the process of incomplete revolutions that don’t always achieve what they seek out to do and through ‘underdevelopment’ of the intellectual mind and society rather than economy and institutions.

This is an extremely broad topic and I’ve just attempted to initiate a discussion. Please do share perspectives on what role (if any) can cinema play in stimulating debate on development issues. Have there been any films that have been particularly insightful and informative in bringing a pertinent issue to light?

Citation:

Lewis, Oscar. “The Culture of Poverty,” Scientific American 215:4, October 1966. 19-25.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 4, 2011 10:09 am

    Great post Rida.

    I think that the role of cinema in development is largely one of awareness. In particular, cinema can play a helpful role in engaging apathetic or ‘novice’ audiences to development issues.

    The need to sensationalize material, or simplify complexed material to bite-sizes, will limit the ability of cinema to encourage a textured and nuanced debate on development issues, particularly among audiences with a more than a cursory understanding of development challenges.

    As a result, cinema is largely a tool of awareness (as you have so wisely pointed out!), but one that should be wielded with great care, discretion, and possibly limited frequency.

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