TV UK, 31 October

The Sheffield International Documentary Festival broadened TV's horizons.

Television coverage of international affairs, or the lack of it, is a constant source of discussion and controversy. Broadcasters are increasingly worried about ratings, and the consensus is that third world stuff in particular puts audiences off. The BBC has recently reduced the run of Correspondent, its foreign current affairs strand, so the outlook is bleak.

The was no such anxiety at last week’s Sheffield International Documentary Festival. The documentaries came from as far afield as Sudan, Indonesia, Finland and North Yorkshire. They weren’t boring either. Interestingly though not surprisingly, many dealt with the increasing interrelations between people in different parts of the world. More intriguing than the quantity of these interactions is their subtle quality.

Bombay Bound is about young Canadians of Indian descent who abandon their adopted culture and ‘return’ to India in the hope of becoming stars in Bollywood. The film opens with a shot of Vikram, a young Canadian actor, arriving at Bombay’s railway station and struggling against the flow of Indians going in the other direction. But this is not just a case of reverse migration. There is really no such thing as either Indian or Canadian culture. Bollywood itself is a hugely successful collision of the particular and the universal in global culture.

Neeru, another young hopeful, struck me as a very American girl. (Apologies to Canadians, but really, what’s the difference?) Her demeanour and way of talking were straight out of Dawson’s Creek, but perhaps her most Western characteristic was her disavowal of Western culture, and her insistence that she is different. An accident of birth meant that Neeru grew up watching Bollywood movies, and she certainly cut a fine figure in a sari, but after a few days in Bombay she headed straight for a bustling McDonald’s.

The people of the poor world’s indefatigable love for the West, and America in particular, upsets many Westerners even more than their occasional hatred. British filmmaker Clive Gordon admitted after his film The Lost Boys that he had been motivated by anti-Americanism. The Lost Boys of the title are young Sudanese refugees displaced by the civil war who were invited to go and live in the USA. For Gordon, this was a terrible idea.

The film shows the boys going through training in the use of toilets and other Western luxuries. By getting up close to the boys in their early days in Boston, Gordon portrays America as a heartless and bewildering place. Eventually the boys get menial jobs in a hotel, which is nothing to write home about, except that back home people don’t even have enough to eat. Even in its heartlessness, America symbolises aspiration, and even when they fail, people want to be there.

Wedding in Ramallah also deals with migration to America, though in this case the US Immigration and Naturalization Service has been less generous. Following a failed marriage to an American woman, Palestinian telephone repairman Bassam goes back to the West Bank for an arranged marriage. (There follows an uncanny synthesis of Western freedom and Eastern chauvinism, but that’s another story.) When he returns to Cleveland, his wife Mariam must wait for a visa in Ramallah with her sister-in-law who is in the same situation.

The wedding took place just before the second intifada started, and so the women have to dodge Israeli bullets as they dream of America. As the visas fail to appear and frustration sets in, their excitement turns to resentment against the USA, though Mariam’s sister-in-law Sinora is such a delight that if the film is ever shown there, people will surely demand that she be allowed in without her pig of a husband. Mariam did make it, but sadly with her pig of a husband.

TV has a fantastic potential to tell us about the lives of people on the other side of the world, and to explain what we have in common and what keeps us apart. With all the platitudes spouted about globalisation, and with the advance of the dumbed down culture war that is the War on Terror, television ought to feature more rather than less international coverage.

The Sheffield International Documentary Festival has shown that it can be done. Indeed, it could be done better. So let’s have it.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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