Power, Privilege, and Film

Development history demonstrates that many efforts to do good have led to unintended, negative, and even disastrous outcomes. Communicating just how this works – and that this is not an isolated historical issue but an ongoing, embedded development concern – is far more challenging than simply asserting that it has happened.

In March I emailed the Higher Education – Service-Learning list asking for films that portray the unintended consequences that often accompany development efforts planned and executed from un-reflective positions of power and privilege. The response demonstrated the extent to which many other individuals are searching for these kinds of resources, so please add additional suggestions below.

The response basically breaks into three categories:

  1. Films that relate to the effects of power and privilege in development planning and implementation;
  2. Films that relate to power and privilege, including issues relating to representation and discourse;
  3. And social justice films broadly speaking.

Number 2 is probably the hardest point to continuously interrogate and understand. Indeed, some of the films suggested in response to this inquiry have also been criticized for the ways in which they represent categories of people and their capacities for empowerment independent of outside / white assistance (Here’s an NPR interview with Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris about the racial overtones of “The Blind Side” and an editorial about “The Help,” Dangerous White Stereotypes, written by UC-Davis Vice Provost and Professor Patricia A. Turner for The New York Times). The controversy surrounding Invisible Children Kony 2012 itself is in large part related to the concerns that the filmmakers did not sufficiently interrogate their own privilege, strategies of representation, and power in respect to how Uganda and Ugandans are understood around the world.  Today I’m going to share some resources relating to numbers 1 and 3. I’ll save 2 for a day on which I have a bit a lot more time.

Films that Relate to Power and Privilege in Development Planning and Implementation

This is the category that sparked my initial email request. Please add additional suggestions in the comments area. Nominees include (quotations within this list are indicating text is from the relevant linked pages):

  • Darwin’s Nightmare: “Some time in the 1960’s, in the heart of Africa, a new animal was introduced into Lake Victoria as a little scientific experiment. The Nile Perch, a voracious predator, extinguished almost the entire stock of the native fish species. However, the new fish multiplied so fast, that its white fillets are today exported all around the world…. This booming multinational industry of fish and weapons has created an ungodly globalized alliance on the shores of the world’s biggest tropical lake: an army of local fishermen, World bank agents, homeless children, African ministers, EU-commissioners, Tanzanian prostitutes and Russian pilots.”
  • T-Shirt Travels: (PBS film website includes links to relevant civil society and teaching resources) “When filmmaker Shantha Bloemen was stationed in a remote village in Zambia as a worker with an international aid organization, she had to adjust to living in a different culture. She learned to cook “mealie meal,” the local staple, and carry water on her head from the river—located over a mile from her home. But one thing struck her as oddly familiar: almost everyone in the village wore secondhand clothing from the West, from the village elder decked out in a Chanel knockoff jacket to women in AC/DC T-shirts to children sporting Adidas sneakers. Bloemen began to imagine stories about the people who used to wear the clothing, wondering if the original owners had any idea that the castoffs they had given to charities ended up being sold to Africans half a world away. What began as an amusement, however, began to take on more serious overtones as Bloemen learned of the consequences of the secondhand clothing trade. She noticed more and more Zambians in the markets—teachers, nurses and civil servants who, having lost their jobs, turned to selling secondhand clothes. How, Bloemen wondered, did all of these Africans end up selling used clothing?” And where did all the T-shirts, jackets, hats and skirts come from? She decided to follow the trail of the secondhand clothes.”
  • The Price of Aid: “Every day the U.S. donates millions of tons of food to famine victims and other starving people in the world’s poorest countries. This provocative documentary, through an in-depth case study of a recent famine crisis in Zambia, shows how these aid programs may address an immediate crisis but at the same time can create long-term problems for the recipient nation. THE PRICE OF AID reveals the vast bureaucratic network of American aid agencies involved in the ‘hunger business,’ one in which rich countries benefit from the problems of poor countries. U.S. aid policies are explained in interviews with representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Coalition for Food Aid, CARE, the World Bank, the Farm and Foreign Agriculture Service, the Food for Peace Program, and U.S. government officials.

Each of the above suggestions hit my initial inquiry because they involve good intentions gone awry. Other important documentary films interrogate power and privilege in terms of representation and discourse, but I would love to see more suggestions very specific to this inquiry.

As I have assembled responses and done my own Googling, I’ve also been turned on to the following resources relating to number 3, social justice films broadly speaking. I’m only sharing resources that are relatively easy to navigate, by which I mean simultaneously approaching concise and comprehensive:

As I mentioned above, I will share more films relating to power and privilege (in terms of number 2) in a later post. In the meantime, please feel free to add suggestions below relating to categories 1 or 3. As always, thank you for reading.

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I welcome your feedback and thoughts.

Post by: Eric Hartman. In addition to being a co-founder of this website, Hartman holds a PhD in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and currently teaches at Temple and Drexel Universities.

This entry was posted in Development, Films, Power and Privilege, Teaching Resources. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Power, Privilege, and Film

  1. Roberta says:

    Thank you for your inquiry and the places it has taken you with film. Film can be a powerful initiator or dialog and the questions you raise about the tensions between development and service can be brought to viewers in local and far away places through film. Thank you.

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