It is awards season in Hollywood. While the shining jewelry and the exuberance of luxury may suggest differently, entertainment media has become an increasingly effective vehicle to convey national realities to foreign publics. Cinema has become a tool for nation-building, but also for the mass communication of a nation’s idea of itself, and as such, one of the most successful tools of public diplomacy. Colombia must support outlets of visual expression that respond to this purpose.
Entertainment has often been dismissed by many as banal, or belonging to low-culture. Many have believed in the past that entertainment, whether in the form of popular music, television shows, websites, or cinema, has little or no connection to more “serious” global topics such as those pertaining to international relations. Yet, in a world in which access to media production methods has gone through a rapid process of democratization, and in which communications between citizens of nations increasingly occur in an instant and unfiltered manner, the reach and influence of entertainment media as a communicator of the image and the reality of nations cannot be dismissed.
Several examples suggest that entertainment media, and particularly cinema, have been effective communication tools of national identity. Evidently, Hollywood’s status as the most powerful cinematographic machinery around the world, has made it a significant asset in American public diplomacy efforts. Hollywood not only has contributed to the branding of the American identity, but it also has contributed to branding, often misleadingly, other national identities. Many people in Kazakhstan are still maddened by the effects of Borat’s portrayal of their nation. Even Colombians abroad often have to dismiss Hollywood’s portrayal of their home country, with airports that have farm animals running around the landing area, or drug dealers with mansions in the jungles. Hollywood has proven to be a powerful influence in the way different countries are thought of around the world.
Yet, for Colombia, it is most interesting to look at what countries like India and Mexico have achieved through cinema. Mexicans, for instance, have been able to create a culture of filmmaking around the country, clearly supported by governmental institutions like IMCINE (the Mexican National Institute of Cinematography), with well-developed systems of funding, such as substantial tax cuts for investors contributing to national cinematographic productions, and with schools where young people can get trained to become filmmakers. The success of the Mexican experience offers many lessons that could be applied to Colombia, and which lead to the notion of taking control over the communication of the image of one’s own country.
As Colombia goes through many positive transformations, and tries to legitimize its position as a nation worth visiting and exploring, it is important that the government takes charge of supporting and promoting national expressions of the Colombian identity and the realities of its citizens. The Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs ought to be collaborating to find effective models to support the production, distribution, and promotion of Colombian cinema, nationally and around the world. Doing so will support a national culture of visual expression that will serve to showcase around the world a Colombian identity that truly responds to the Colombian experience.
Author Felipe Estefan is Colombian and studies media and international relations in New York