Chris Mackie, Principal, Covelly Strategies: July 2005 Archives
Amazingly, a better film than "Hotel Rwanda"aired on HBO this March and is now available on DVD. Don't be fooled by the wistful title; this drama set during and after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda is about as uncompromising as a film can be, and still be watchable.
Mercifully, "Sometimes in April" does not show much more graphic violence than "Hotel Rwanda" does. But by focusing on the lives of a half-dozen people for whom refuge in the Hotel Milles Collines was not an option, it brings us closer to the full horror of those terrible 100 days, when hate-maddened Hutus slaughtered almost a million of their Tutsi and Hutu countrymen.
What I find most impressive is the skill with which writer-director Raoul Peck weaves a handful of personal stories into the fabric of a national catastrophe. This is hard to do well, as most would-be historical storytellers soon discover.
But after a slow start, we become totally absorbed in the fates of Augustin (Idris Elba), a Hutu soldier who refuses to join the killing; his wife Jeanne (Carole Karemera), a Tutsi who tries to escape with her children; Augustin's brother Honoré (Oris Erhuero), a radio host who as the story opens is being tried by a 2004 war crimes tribunal for having broadcast hate propaganda; and finally, Martine (Pamela Novete), the headmistress of a Catholic school attended by Augustin's and Jeanne's daughter.
These are urban middle-class people and therefore easy for Westerners to identify with. But unlike "Hotel Rwanda," which further cultivates the Western viewer by including sympathetic American and European characters, "Sometimes in April" draws us toward the rural poor, including some older people (not actors) whose brief appearances evoke both the searing emotion and the exhausted indifference felt by anyone who survives events like those of April 1994.
A personal note: both films cut away to Washington, DC, where the Clinton administration was stepping on its own tongue trying not to use the G-word, because to call what was happening "genocide" would have obliged the world to take action. It's easy to denounce well fed officials for doing nothing, but I was living in Washington at that time, and that same month was the publication date of a book I had been working on for a long time. So I spent those 100 days flogging my book. This is never a pretty sight, but it is even less so in the sobering hindsight provided by this film.
Ever since 1948, when the Justice Department won its lawsuit, U.S. v. Paramount, against the major movie studios, it has been illegal for a company to produce and distribute movies while also owning the theaters in which they are shown.
If you read carefully the article in today's New York Times about the high hopes of Hollywood in China, you will notice that the rule laid down by that 1948 case does not apply there. For example, Time Warner is investing not only in production and distribution but also in "more than 70 cinemas around the country in preparation for a potential theater-going boom."
Americans like to think that our movies are just so wonderful, the world can't get enough of them. On the whole, we reject the left's now stale-sounding accusations of "US cultural imperialism." But despite the genuine popularity of our films worldwide, there has always been an element of coercion involved, as well as a distinctly double standard regarding business ethics.
This is an old story. During World War I, the fledgling studios made domestic propaganda films for the Committee on Public Information, and after the war, Washington repaid the studios by pressuring war-weakened European governments to allow the import of US films. Without this help, countries like France (then the leading supplier of films in the world) would have been more successful in keeping the US out of European markets.
This process got racheted up after World War II, when despite much rhetoric about free markets, Washington exerted extremely heavy pressure toward the same goal, while in the process allowing the studios to engage in monopolistic practices overseas that were outlawed at home. In a nutshell, they were allowed to form a cartel, the Motion Picture Export Association, that conspired against foreign theater owners by acting as a single distributor, booking films in “blocks,” threatening to cut off supply if theater owners showed non-US films, and allocating foreign profits based on domestic box-office receipts.
The studios were also given a huge advantage over foreign competitors by the Informational Media Guaranty Program (1948), which reimbursed them in dollars for all films sold to countries with soft or inconvertible currencies. And finally, the Marshall Plan for Europe contained provisions linking financial aid to the willingness of foreign governments to reduce or eliminate import quotas on American films.
A few years later, TV followed same pattern. In 1960 the Television Program Export Association enlisted the aid of the State Department in overcoming foreign resistance to “Batman,” “Mod Squad,” and “The Fugitive.” Especially after the movie studios began producing TV shows, they made the same case for the small screen that they had made for the large - that exporting entertainment was not just good business but also good PR. As Harrison Salisbury once said, “American pictures are the best and most forceful medium for selling the United States.”
This may still be good business, but is it good PR? That is a question very much on my mind these days...