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Film & cultural diplomacy
Film – A Strong Tool in American Soft Power
By Katarzyna Gluszak, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy

American political scientist, Joseph S. Nye Jr., defined soft power as ‘the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion’. He said that ‘it could be developed through relations with allies, economic assistance, and cultural exchanges.’ Military strength, therefore, is not everything; in order to succeed in international politics, countries need to appeal to the people, seduce them, and shape their preferences. According to Dr. Nye, there are three main sources of soft power: culture, political values, and foreign policy –  culture being the most powerful of the three. The United States is the best exmaple in this respect. Through their film industry, the Americans have consistently sought to promote their culture and democratic values such as openness, mobility, individualism, opposition to the establishment, pluralism, and freedom. Today, Hollywood is the largest exporter of films in the world and American movies continue to influence our views on important social issues, and our way of life.

No doubt, cinema is the most popular and universal medium of mass entertainment.  It is through film that we have learned to appreciate art, experiment with form, and communicate with spheres not usually available through direct contact. Cinema has allowed us to gain new ways of experiencing the world and obtaining information. While the initial goal of new art was to entertain audiences, the outbreak of global conflicts changed things considerably and now cinema has become a powerful means of transmitting social messages to the public, as well as influencing politicians and governments around the world.

The outbreak of the Second World War forced directors to take appropriate actions. National cinema became a strong tool of soft power through which filmmakers advocated concepts of democracy and the struggle for independence. Even animated movies were drawn into the circle of war. Walt Disney created a series of educational and informative films, including films about social issues. However, it was not only Hollywood which had taken such an approach. German cinema also played an important part in trying to brainwash inhabitants to believe that the Nazi way was the ‘right’ way and therefore to accept the idea of total war. For example, Joseph Goebbels, German politician and Reich Minister of Propaganda (1933-1945), laid special emphasis on documentary films those intended for the German population illustrating a perfect and well-organized army, and those made for the world in which dramatic scenes were shown to frighten and paralyze the resistance. On the other hand in the US, many well-known and notable Hollywood filmmakers were working for the government, and because of the pressure to subscribe to government policies, they were unable to fully realize their vision. Though there were still some such as Frank Capra and John Ford, who outrightly refused to cooperate and managed to create propaganda images through which they conveyed their own personal perception of the war.  For  instance, Capra in his films defied the universal values of Western democracy and terror of the Axis powers.

Post World War II, American cinema experienced some changes again. After years of using film for the formation of public opinion, filmmakers realized that it was time to liberate cinema, so that the industry could become more independent and reach a wider audience. Filmmakers stopped trying to fit their films with the interests of the state, and there was a big inflow of new young directors who focused on contemporary problems such as unemployment among demobilized soldiers, war bitterness, and racism. As stated by director William Wyler, “War has taught us how to understand the world better. We are no longer the same people. And so we must conclude that Hollywood does not reflect the world and the times that we are experiencing.” Through cinema, filmmakers tried to reflect the spirit of society, the rebellion of the younger generation and the accompanying opposition to the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The majority of the films were focused on the disastrous effects of war and the difficulties being faced by people who had returned to society and were largely unaware of the realities of the war. By the end of the Cold War, cinema ceased to be regarded as part of war propaganda. Even after the 9/11 attacks and the Iraq War, American cinema remained divided. The start of the new millennium marked the beginning of a new era in the Hollywood industry, with films coming back on the right track.

Even today, film as a tool of soft power is still developing in America. The idea to get people involved and show the world their culture remains very important and valuable to Americans. And of course, it cannot be denied that Hollywood has taken over the world; in nearly every corner of the globe, people are influenced by American traditions and western culture whether it is through food, music, or film. Even in the worst political times, art has always had tremendous power to bring people together. In our increasingly globalized and fast-changing society, the need to appeal to wider audiences has become ever more crucial, and given the vast range of films today, we have more space to interpret movies in the way that we want, as opposed to being told what is right or what is wrong. Over the years, films have definitely proven to be an excellent medium to explore different cultures and understand different ways of thinking, while at the same time helping us find our common ground.

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The London Art as Cultural Diplomacy ConferenceAugust 21st, 2013

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