Hawaii Film Blog

Friday, October 28, 2005

Halting American Cultural Imperialism

Last week, the "Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions" was approved by 148 member countries of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The convention allows countries to exclude cultural goods (movies, music, books, art) from the list of goods governed by international trade rules. In other words, a movie is not that same as lumber or a burger. Ultimately, this means that a country can set quotas on foreign cultural products coming in.

Predictably, the U.S.--the greatest exporter of cultural goods--voted against the convention. The U.S. was joined by Israel as the only opponents of measure. Australia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Liberia abstained from voting.

Pushed forward by France and Canada, the convention was 2 years in the making, and is seen as a thinly veiled attempt to stem American cultural imperialism or what some call the "McDonaldization of culture" across the globe. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, foreign theatrical distribution of U.S. films brought in $20.3 billion in 2003. Furthermore, as noted at the convention, 85% of global movie ticket expenditures is for U.S. films, and 5 countries monopolize cultural trade while 88 of 185 total countries have never had their own film production.

The U.S. says the convention allows repressive governments to limit the free flow of ideas and information. Louise Oliver, U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO said the measure restricts cultural diversity and "could be used by states to justify policies that could be used or abused to control the cultural lives of their citizens – policies that a state might use to control what its citizens can see; what they can read; what they can listen to; and what they can do. We believe -- in keeping with existing conventions -- that the world must affirm the right of all people to make these decisions for themselves."

The convention has not become international law yet; 30 countries must ratify it first, a process that could take months or even years.

What would happen if it passed? Some say not much since kids the world over could still download music and movies from the Internet. Others say this would be a death knell for U.S. independent films because they'd inevitably compete with big studio productions for export. Think about it: if foreign distributors were forced to choose, would they want to screen starless indies over Tom Cruise blockbusters? The sad part is, it's the indies that push the envelope and tell thought-provoking and unique stories, and help paint a picture of the U.S. as a multicultural, multifaceted place. Now the world will see us even more as cocky white action heroes with cool cars and five guns.

>> General Conference adopts Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expressions [UNESCO, 10/20/05]
>> Cultural Diversity: Canada's UN Victory [The Tyee (Canada), 10/28/05]
>> Hollywood the loser as global culture plan backed [The Independent (UK), 10/21/05]
>> A (small) blow against the McDonaldization of culture [The Jamaica Observer, 10/23/05]
>> UNESCO Convention could limit freedom of cultural expressions and trade [U.S. Mission to UNESCO, 10/20/05]

UPDATE (11/2): UN Accord Sparks Concern Among Indie Filmmakers [Reuters/Back Stage, 11/2/05]

Local Filmmakers Left in the Dust
>> The Meaning of "Independent"
>> Indies in Hollywood's Wake

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