The Role of Cinema in Defining Perceptions of Nations and Cultures
Film is one of the few things that can maintain our attention for 90 minutes. It is a diversion
from all else, and we surrender our own reality and stories for a while for that which is shown
on screen. Our belief is suspended in order to help and encourage the narrative, because we
want it to work and we want to be entertained.
Through the story we will develop an investment, either a fondness or an intrigue for the
characters that we don’t want to let go of straightaway, pauses or changes of pace allow for the
digestion of opinion, on top of all this there are all sorts of subtleties that might come into play
unconsciously. All of which combined will leave a lasting impression on the audience, which is
a filmmaker’s aim. Amongst this, perceptions are naturally formed, of characters, of moral choices, of certain actions, and the viewer will be disarmed further and thus more susceptible to these perceptions and the influence of the director if it is based on a true story or at least if the setting is real and fundamental in illustrating context and background. When the setting is used in this way, its perception in the minds of others is liable to become malleable.
This is also where films can fall into the trap of encouraging a stereotype, particularly in
Western cinema. The characters can change and the narrative varies, but the setting usually
tells a familiar story based on general knowledge and the pre-existing conceptions of the
individual. It can be a way of providing a richer backstory, greater historical or cultural context,
a specific atmosphere or tone, and all through the philosophy of showing not telling – a
fundamental component of effective storytelling. For example, in Western cinema at least, if a
film is set in the desert in the USA, one might expect cowboys or a 19th century timeline, or at
least be reminded of them.
If a film is set in 1950’s New York, one might expect gangsters of some sort. If a film is set in the Middle East one might expect modern warfare with Western intervention. A Scandinavian setting might bring expectations of a bleak crime drama. At least, these are the types of films and TV from these settings that seem to be most popular with a Western audience, this popularity translates into commercial success, which translates to more of the same. The same can work for characters who are from specific parts of the world, people can come to associate their fictitious behaviours with real people, and this only multiplies with their popularity. People foreign to the UK may associate its people with James Bond and Harry Potter, for the global love and success of these characters that are fundamentally British.
The same for the success of The Godfather and films by Scorsese, the fact that these characters
have Italian heritage gently nudges our perception of Italy and the mafia, because we likely
watch more gangster films than read about the Mob trials or see reports in the news. Italy has
enough of a Western presence and enough international exports for this to be a small
contributing factor into foreign perceptions of its nation and culture. It is slightly different for
countries in Scandinavia, because fewer people worldwide know about their culture than
Italy’s, and are thus more familiar with the international success of their crime thrillers:
Wallander; The Killing; The Bridge; films based on the books of Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson.
These are some of the biggest exports of the three countries and so we come to identify it as
part of their image in our perception, for example.
Unless one has already been taught, travels, or makes a conscious effort to read and research
more, visual entertainment is likely the basis for perceptions and opinions. It fits the current
age in its fast delivery and minimal effort on the part of the consumer. So people today will
generally watch more films, TV, or 3 minute informative videos (which mainly consist of food or
animals) than they would read books or travel, which undeniably is easier and far less costly.
What they are seeing is a heavily romanticised, stylised, exaggerated version of reality, and this
could be their original source of information on the matter, with few other references, perhaps
sensationalist news reports.
With Colombia, there is the perfect storm
Many films and series have taken advantage of Pablo Escobar before the success of Narcos, but
Narcos very much reinvigorated the topic. Firstly, it is a TV series distributed by Netflix,
meaning greater budget for the production, enhancing credibility in its design and execution,
and also instant availability for all 150 million members, which generates global hype and
encourages a binging culture, which really immerses the viewer into the world. TV series are
perhaps even more intrusive to the formation of perceptions and opinions than films. This is
because by virtue they stay with us for longer they are fleshed out further to cultivate an
investment in the wider picture and to give it more depth as opposed to a single character ark
or storyline, and by this point the viewer is immersed into carrying the weight of the series until
Secondly, the character satisfies a global fascination with crime, it would seem the strong
majority of Hollywood productions involve at least one crime being committed at one point,
not to mention the recent inundation of true crime series. It is a certain way to generate
tension because most people have never committed a crime, so they experience the thrill
vicariously through the screen, and this thrill brings tension because at the same time you
naturally wonder what you would do. Not only does it intrigue the viewer, but it also engages
them in a form of participation.
The subject of cocaine and drugs also lends itself to this blend
of intrigue, the thrill of the crime as mentioned above when depicting the higher ranks and
cartel violence, and the thrill of the lifestyle. On the glamourous Western side of things, it is
linked with lavish lifestyles, exclusive parties, famous people, and therefore more prone to
stories of debauchery and humour based on its outlandishness, this is where the light
heartedness on the subject begins to act as a foil for the darkness. Although more accessible
and safer than cartel politics and violence, it is still a foreign idea to many and they live
vicariously through this too, and feel a portion of its enjoyment.
Thirdly, Colombia’s achievements do not have the same international reach as they do
nationally. In the same way that other cultures have been almost typecast in cinema, those who
have no prior experience or notion of Colombia will take the things most popular in cinema as
reference, the crime. This is especially difficult for Colombia. It does not have the same fortune
as some of its European counterparts in terms of basic global knowledge of its culture and
merits. It means that, on an international level at least, the noise of Escobar somewhat
drowns out the sound of the other achievements, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Fernando Botero,
perhaps the two most famous examples.
This leaves the country vulnerable to being more hastily defined through the
commercial success and viability of violent drama. Lastly, and most effectively and damagingly,
it is steeped in truth. As briefly mentioned earlier, ‘based on a true story’ has the power to
disarm a viewer into total engagement and hypnotic complicity. Newspaper clippings or real life footage from news reports are interspersed in scenes or between dialogue to remind us that it has really happened, to root an imagining into the real world, and through this, the re-enactment of the drama is undoubtedly more gripping. The consequence is that assumptions, educated imaginings and sometimes fiction is therefore taken as fact.
If someone were to list a basic report of what had happened in Colombia based
on their viewing on Narcos, on paper the rough gist would be the same. However, the series
needs to be more than just a piece of paper, it needs drama, romance, style, action and
investment in the characters. It is rendered more exciting, if it is pure misery, then it won’t
attract a large audience. This is what influences perception in equal proportions as the raw
narrative. That which is visual rather than spoken or written because those are the images and
feelings that linger, so it is very possible not to be left with a feeling of despair, but instead a
feeling of satisfaction following riveting entertainment.
This is partly why there is a contrast between those who come and do Escobar tours and know
it is safer now but still throw around the jokes and stereotypes, because for them they have
derived the entertainment from the thrill and onscreen suffering in a morbid but infectious
global phenomenon, and they do this from a place of detachment because it can be let go after
90 minutes or a series, and at worst you feel glad it’s not you. But for those in the country, the
suffering is real and the suffering lingers, there has not been the same blend between reality
and fiction, between real pain and gripping entertainment. The first image that comes into a
casual outsider’s head is testament to the production, it is of the actor, perhaps a scene in
particular, or even just costume and set design. Needless to say it is a different first image for
those that have lived through it, likely something very personal and unique to the individual, a
memory of where you were when you received bad news, the same things you would feel when
reflecting on any painful part of your life you would rather move on and recover from.
Travellers then arrive, excited by travels and excited to recognise places they’ve seen in Narcos
or other such series, and they will go on tours or joke about it amongst themselves or perhaps
bring it up in conversation with locals. As with any country, it is like picking at the scab of a
wound that wants to heal. As if people were to come to the UK and constantly bring up the 7/7
bombings or The Troubles, or USA with 9/11 and school shootings, Germany and the Nazis. It is
therefore difficult to not feel defined by this, and easy for this to stay with the collective
identity when seeing it everywhere, with the huge success of Narcos and films on Pablo
Escobar, and the type of tourism it brings, when it seems like these are the only things that
carry enough volume to be heard on a global level. It is important to shift these stereotypes.
Not to deny their historical existence or significance but to tell different stories, if it is to be
approached then to approach it differently, to be more nuanced and original. But perhaps more
revolutionarily, to approach different subjects entirely.
With this in mind, films like Magia Salvaje carry greater significance, and its success should be
encouraging. It is the most ticketed Colombian film in history with over 2,400,000 viewers and
has recently been added to Netflix. Normally it would be unusual for a documentary to have
this level of success, to become more successful in it’s own country than a Jurassic Park film for
example, but it demonstrates a willingness to reaffirm national pride rather than condemn it. It
confirms it is possible to touch on something other than drugs and violence, that such projects
are both refreshing and desired by the people on a greater level than just base entertainment,
and that its success is not a fluke.
This does not mean to say that Magia Salvaje is the only example. Films like Ciro y Yo, La Estrategia Del Caracol; directors like Víctor Gaviria, are known within Colombia but do not receive the same international acclaim. In recent years it has been proven possible for Latin American projects to find success, particularly Mexico with Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Alfonso Cuarón with Roma. Perhaps Distrito Salvaje can also be encouraging. In terms of content, although it is not centred on drugs it still touches on subjects such as corruption, action, and violence, but on the positive side it is the first Colombian series to be shown on Netflix and it has been renewed for a second season. It also feels like cinematic attention on Pablo Escobar has been exhausted, there is not much more that can be said about him, leaving open an opportunity for something far more original on the subject, or for different pursuits entirely.
Hopefully films such as Magia Salvaje will pave the way for more large-scale Colombian projects
and encourage the younger generations that Colombia also has a very valid place in cinema. It
could be an exciting time for film and television in Colombia.