Educating for a Just and Sustainable World 

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Development and Film: Are we getting the bigger picture?

Philip French, who recently retired as film critic for The Observer after 50 years of insightful and informative reviews, described cinema as ‘the great art form of the 20th century’ and suggested that ‘this century is continuing the same way’.  Cinema continues to enjoy a popular status in our cultural lives despite the multitude of digital and online access points for movies and television at home.  We still enjoy the social activity of cinema-going and the opportunity to view films on the big screen.  Given its capacity as a conveyor of knowledge, images, messages and issues to a large, international audience, film has immense importance to development practitioners yet according to Lewis et al remains an ‘under-studied medium for development knowledge’ (2013: 20).  In an interesting research working paper, Lewis et al consider the role that film has played in considering ‘key themes within the landscape of global inequalities and power relationships’ (ibid).  They contrast how a range of movies from popular entertainments to more serious-minded fare represent the global South and convey development issues.  

On the positive side, the paper finds merit in a series of films released in the early 1980s that challenged the prevailing neoliberal ideology and its outworkings in the global South.  Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Costa-Gravas’s Missing (1982), Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire (1983) and Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) all questioned the destabilising intervention of the United States (US) in the global South, particularly in Latin America.  These movies adhered to the structural device of viewing these societies in crisis through the experiences of Western outsiders but offered critical voices of the machinations of US foreign policy within popular narrative frames.  They bear interesting comparison with Kathryn Bigelow’s more recent commentaries on US militarism and foreign policy, The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) that are studiedly ambiguous about the United States’ ‘war on terror’ to the point that, in the latter, the use of torture is neither confronted nor condemned.   Both films received Oscars and widespread critical acclaim which may reflect the fact that the pendulum has swung very much to the right in a post-9/11 America.

On the negative side, the paper bemoans the lack of social and economic complexity in mainstream films which can sometimes trivialise or marginalise important issues central to underdevelopment.  They can also reinforce stereotypes of the colonial ‘Other’ devoid of agency and dependent on the intervention of the ‘West’.  Alternatively, the global South can be reduced to the role of scenery and back drop to Western experiences.  A particularly crude recent example of such reductionism was The Impossible (2012) which told the story of an English family caught up in the 2004 tsunami while on holiday in Thailand.  The 

infrastructural devastation wreaked on the local population plays second fiddle to the plight of the tourists who by the end of the movie gratefully depart the chaos below aboard a chartered jet.

It is unsurprising that the global South and development issues are best served by film-makers from the developing world often addressing issues with which they have first-hand knowledge.  

Perhaps the high-water mark of movies that portray life in its full social, economic and cultural complexity is the canon of Satyajit Ray, the Bengali writer, composer, editor, artist and film director.  His most celebrated films are The Apu Trilogy (1955-59) that chart the life of a rural Bengal family.  These films neither sentimentalise or judge it's impoverished characters and continue to resonate today in their consideration of issues including gender, faith, education and poverty in rural and urban contexts.  ‘The result’, said Philip French, ‘proved to be an enduring, humanistic masterpiece, specific in its setting, universal in its appeal’.

More recent movies from the South that have achieved international prominence  identified by Lewis et al include City of God (2002) which vividly depicts violence on the streets of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and appeared to acquire a veracity in its treatment of urban violence not entirely deserved. Lewis et al claim the film is ‘riddled with stereotypes’ and contains ‘critically flawed ideas about gangs and gang members’ (10).  They suggest that movies made in the South can sometimes be taken in the North as ‘quasi-documentary’ which point to a ‘collective condition’; a dangerous assumption that development educators need to be aware of when using film with learners.

So, what do the reflections of Lewis et al say about the possibilities of film in development practice, particularly development education?  Well, they argue that as a medium film is alluring and popular and, at their best, can communicate important social issues to large audiences without resorting to didacticism.  However, they argue that ‘narrative structure, and cinematographic imperatives being what they are, facts frequently have to give way to dramatic effect’ (10).  Educators have to evaluate the capacity of films to inform the audience while being cognisant of the corners sometimes cut by film-makers in terms of substance, accuracy and context.  While there could be a temptation to accept that films from the South are produced with due attention paid to ‘factual detail and historical accuracy’, we should not forget that Satyajit Ray was inspired to make The Apu Trilogy after seeing Italian director Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948).  There are film-makers of value in the North and South committed to social realism and passionate about the role of film in uncovering injustice and inequality wherever it lurks.

The ‘brief treatment’ by Lewis et al on the cinematic representation of development identifies several issues that could be investigated in further research including: 

“[T]he over-reliance on particular narrative imperatives, the seductiveness of film as a medium, the personalizing of politics, the selectivity of issues that are focused upon, the inability to address structural complexity, and the tendency for trivialization of serious issues within star actor vehicles” (20).

We could add to this list the considerable role played by documentary film-making in taking up development issues, particularly in a ‘golden age’ when the availability of cheap equipment is democratising what can be a top-down, corporate-driven art form. This is best exemplified by the Oscar nominated Five Broken Cameras (2011) which chronicled frontline accounts of the non-violent direct actions by Palestinian farmers resisting Israeli occupation of their village in the West Bank.  The documentary form is continually being stretched and reinvented and seems perfectly suited to the needs of development educators both as a source of learning resources and means of film-making.

This would appear to be an opportune time to evaluate the role of film as a teaching tool ‘for bringing alive and humanizing important, if inherently vexing, global issues’ (22).  With this in mind, the next issue of Policy and Practice, the Centre for Global Education’s journal, will explore how film can strengthen development education practice and engage new audiences in the development process.


Lewis, David, Rodgers, Dennis and Woolcock, Michael (2013), ‘The Projection of Development: Cinematic Representation as An(other) Source of Authoritative Knowledge’, Policy Research Working Paper 6491, The World Bank Development Research Group Poverty and Inequality Team, June 2013, available: (accessed 10 September 2013).

Guardian, ‘Camera, laptop, action: the new golden age of documentary’, 7 November 2010, available: (accessed 10 September 2013).

The Observer, ‘That's a wrap: Philip French, Observer film critic, steps down after 50 years’, 4 May 2013, available:, (accessed 10 September 2013).

The Observer, ‘The Apu Trilogy’, 2 July 2006, available: (accessed 8 September 2013).