Movies: An Evil Empire

I went to a Literary Circle event last night, even though it did involve passing over the threshold of a (gasp) Public School. I think I managed to get away with it. I don’t know where UCS hide the fags, canes and terrified first years, but they do it quite well.

Melanie Phillips and a chap called Zia something were discussing America, imperialism and the usual suspects (war in Iraq, Israel, yadda yadda). Zia says in his book, and said at the debate, that American imperialism manifests itself differently nowadays. Rather than invading and occupying countries and exploiting them for cash, America colonises via films, TV and music. He gave the example of Malaysia, where TV networks prefer to broadcast The X-Files rather than locally made programmes about local issues. He said this was unfair, because obviously the X-Files has higher production values and more people want to watch it.

But I don’t think you can blame the US for that. It’s not the fault of Americans that they spend a lot of money on making movies and TV. It’s one of their major exports and they make a good profit on them. Would you rather drive an American car or watch The Sopranos or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Quite. If ordinary Malaysians would rather watch Mulder and Scully than local TV, they are not alone. Regional programming in the UK usually has tiny viewing figures as well.

Zia is, I think, being unfair to America and is using his own definition of imperialism. If well meaning Malaysian TV makers aren’t going to provide it, then the networks will simply buy stuff in that many people want to watch. Buying The X-Files is far cheaper than making your own version and it’s not America’s fault: people like bread and circuses.

His argument also falls a bit flat when one looks at Bollywood and the newly emerging Nigerian film industry. Using the Hollywood format, films are produced locally (with lower production values stemming from a necessarily limited budget) that are immensely popular. He may claim that this is cultural imperialism by stealth, but this is unfair. People want escapism. They want the fantasy that a Hollywood/Bollywood/Nollywood movie provides and to decry this as imperialism is to deny a basic human need.

For an intellectual, the idea that an ordinary person enjoys all this dancing about and decadence and actively prefers it to a boring programme about local crafts can be upsetting, but this is daft. Yes, an intellectual may be harder to please, but look at it this way: most academics are middle class, whatever country or cultural background they may hail from. By their nature, therefore, they are comfortable. They do not have to strive to put food on the table, keep their families safe and provide them with clean water. So I would argue that they (and I count myself amongst them) have less need for the bright colours, music and the window onto a different and better world offered by the American entertainment industry. When global poverty has been eradicated, and everyone has access to sanitation and education, then we can whine about the X-Files being popular in Malaysia.

In conclusion, I am confused by Zia’s definition of imperialism as producing a product that people want. There’s no Clockwork Orange forced viewing scenario here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *