Experts Answer: Film and Public Diplomacy

CPD Question: Film plays a vital role in the formation of public opinion and can be a vehicle for soft power for various nations. Considering film’s global importance, what responsibility do you think the film industry has as a contributor to cultural diplomacy?*

Experts Answer:

“There is no greater tool for creating mental images that powerfully shape identities and define cultural relationships than film.  The global film industry has grown rich and very profitable on the cooperation of a global audience that has readily partaken of its cultural fare – sometimes unfortunately promoting cultural divisions and stereotypes.  In an increasingly threatened and conflict ridden world, the film industry has to recognize its subtle power as a tool for public diplomacy, and especially its responsibility, to promoting cross-cultural production and images that enhance peace and harmony throughout the world.”
Linus Abraham (Rector)
Adjunct Professor, National Film & TV Institute, School Of Communication Studies, University of Ghana, Legon

“While the film industry probably should develop a moral global responsibility, with few exceptions, it more often closely follows the dictum of early studio chief, Samuel Goldwyn who said, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”“
Alan Baker
Associate Dean, Administration & International Projects, USC School of Cinematic Arts

“Film is in a delicate position in the field of cultural diplomacy.  It is both a valuable method of inter-cultural communication and sometimes the thing that communication has to counter.  Many a U.S. embassy cultural attaché has been heard to lament: ‘the real America is not like what you see in the movies…’  For Americans at least the challenge is to harness a commercial medium for political purposes.  Unless the political purposes make money, they are most likely to be forgotten. Movie mogul Sam Goldwyn’s jibe that ‘if you want to send a message use Western Union’ remains current in today’s Hollywood.  Yet there are things that can be done.  I think that it helps to remind the film community from time to time of their ethical responsibilities to the formation of attitudes around the world towards the United States, and of the United States towards the world.  It also makes sense to do what we can to make resources available to Hollywood to help its portrayal of international issues and culture. The Muslims on Screen and Television (MOST) project housed at USC is an excellent example of this kind of thing.  Some directors—David O. Russell of “Three Kings” springs to mind—have shown that cultural sensitivity is no bar to commercial success.  Yet in the last analysis, Hollywood is a reflection of its audience, and if ordinary Americans continue to appear to be uninterested in other countries when there are teenage vampires on hand, should Hollywood be expected to take a financial hit?  The real need is to open America more broadly to the world, and Hollywood—with its longstanding penchant for employing foreign talent—may actually be ahead of the game.”
Nicholas J. Cull
Director, Master of Public Diplomacy Program, University of Southern California

“I believe the UK’s film industry has a major role in cultural diplomacy – something it is taking very seriously in its newly defined incarnation with the British Film Institute as lead body. UK film has always both upheld certain traditional values as well as variously questioning, mocking or undermining them.  Study of the cultural impact of film here is poor compared with its economic impact but it is now recognised within the UK’s industry that film can and does have many different kinds of impact beyond simple financial collateral: film can create characters, ideas and images that live in the memories of people who have seen them – or even who have not seen them – for a lifetime to come. Film can create distinct identities for our nations and regions, articulate voices of our various minority communities, and can impact both the way others see us and we see ourselves. The UK’s industry is a relatively small one, wholly reliant on an equal mix of public/private activity. While it is obviously the responsibility of the public elements to recognise, support and develop the cultural diplomacy potential of UK film, it is therefore equally necessary for the private elements to share the task.” 
Briony Hanson
Director, Film, British Council

“We must beware of harnessing the arts for political goals, no matter how lofty they may be. This would only result in bad art. I am convinced that an environment in which the arts are diverse and thrive will contribute more to a human world than any kind of pedagogy. Therefore, endowments for the arts should be strengthened, not axed.”
Fareed C. Majari
Director, Goethe-Institut Los Angeles

“When teaching and mentoring a new generation of filmmakers we believe in the development of their conceptual, creative and technical skills. But of equal, if not greater importance, is our attention placed upon the personal development of the filmmaker and their attitudes towards the world we live in. What is the filmmaker’s perspective of the world, where it is heading and what is their intention in telling their story? We believe that with the undeniable power that comes alongside telling stories through moving images comes such undeniable responsibilities.”
Sydney Film School

“When dealing with cinema, one should never forget that it is, first and foremost, part of the global cultural/entertainment industry that is worth 2 trillion dollars in all. Today, the biggest film production and distribution centers in the world are located in the USA, Honk Kong, Nigeria and India. Even though the U.S. film industry is the one with the largest revenues, Bollywood produces more films a year than any other industry. And there are great competitors in Europe that frame the cinema as part of their own cultural identity and as a form of distinction, such as France, Italy or Germany. Now, as a multibillion dollar industry, the film industry also exercises influence, and thus has lots of power that is not always visible to all. During the so called “Golden Age of the Mexican Cinema”, from 1920 to 1960, the exhibition of Mexican films in the USA was not only a source of income for Mexico, but a point of cultural encounter for Chicanos, the Mexican diasporas and the American people. For many, the first identification with Mexico in the USA comes from these films. The Mexican government has since made films part of their cultural diplomacy abroad, showing Mexican movies to small and large audiences wherever they have diplomatic missions. In this sense, Mexican cultural diplomacy is seen as a way to influence students, professors and other professionals about Mexican culture, Spanish language and the point of view of Mexicans on certain issues. I am of the opinion that cultural diplomacy can go hand in hand with the cinema to make the understanding of peoples, cultures and situations easier. It is a magnificent tool to make soft power possible.”
Cesar Villanueva Rivas
Professor, Department of International Studies, Ibero-American University


CPD Monitor is a platform for public diplomacy discussion and beginning with this issue on the Future of Public Diplomacy, CPD will make use of this publication to connect with and engage international practitioners and scholars in a shared dialogue on issues of current interest to the greater public diplomacy community. On a periodic basis, the CPD Monitor editorial staff will reach out to various public diplomacy experts to answer one timely public diplomacy question. The responses that are published are by no means comprehensive. We encourage our readers to continue this conversation in our comments section below. Feel free to send us your suggested questions for future issues at

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