Thursday, May 20, 2010

Robin Hood: the "medieval tea party"?

(Image courtesy of Robin Hood, the movie.)

Last weekend I went to see the new Robin Hood, and had been meaning to write about it since then, but for various reasons I had to put the cyberspace "activity" aside, lately. As I was looking up some reviews of the movie, I was struck by a couple of prominent ones, and felt like I should share an excerpt or two.

Here is what New York Time's A. O. Scott had to say about it:

You may have heard that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that was just liberal media propaganda. This Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!

So is “Robin Hood” one big medieval tea party? Kind of, though that description makes the movie sound both more fun and more provocative than it actually is."

And well, the Washington Post's Mike O'Sullivan adopts a similar tone:

At times, it feels like a political attack ad paid for by the tea party movement, circa 1199. Set in an England that has been bankrupted by years of war in the Middle East -- in this case, the Crusades -- it's the story of a people who are being taxed to death by a corrupt government, under an upstart ruler who's running the country into the ground."

It is interesting to see how movies get politicized and interpreted so differently by every viewer. And indeed, as I was watching it, it didn't even cross my mind to view it from the perspective of domestic American politics. It had many very well made medieval battle scenes (yes, it's just me appreciating war scenes, and I should say I really disagree with the reviewers' dislike of the multiplicity of arrows...), Russell Crowe (very well suited for the role and brilliant as always), pretty interesting English ("very English," that is) language that one doesn't often get in the movies anymore, and an awesome theme. And the latter was actually the thing that struck me as very relevant to what we have been talking about in the PD-related discussions over the past year.

Just a couple of weeks ago, in my final report for the PD class - which comprised recommendations to the U.S. Embassy in the Russian Federation in improving their PD effectiveness - I mentioned film as a strong tool with a lot of potential. Although the U.S. government rarely, if at all, produced movies for "public diplomacy" itself - with one prominent exception - it has somehow outsourced the job to Hollywood. And yet, with over-commercialization and lack of cultural sensitivity, over-reliance on Hollywood in this respect has also, arguably, backfired in many cases. That is why, those increasingly rare cases, where the movie makes a good point without necessarily going into over-dramatization of "Americanness" itself while carrying "a message", should be taken up and their spirit encouraged around the world.

Thus, for example, liberty and empowerment lie at the core of the current U.S. foreign policy objectives, and are supposedly the drivers behind most foreign engagements. This version of the Robin Hood - fighting tyranny, promoting of what turns out to be some sort of a pre-Magna Carta version of a charter of rights and liberties, empowering the people to strengthen the nation, etc. - goes a long way in reflecting U.S. ideals and its message abroad, without any reference to America (the events take place in the late 12th century).

The important point here is that unlike war movies like Saving Private Ryan, Tears of the Sun, or The Kingdom, Robin Hood is not American-centric, and yet is very telling about the values that the U.S. aims to project, especially to peoples of countries with governments of the less "freedom-loving" type. After all, a major problem with the U.S. public diplomacy is that instead of focusing, as much as possible, on values and shared (or desired) interests - which would, certainly, be way more successful in appealing to foreigners - it seems to be drifting, time and again, towards "self-centrism" and ignorance of "the others."

Encouraging and promoting the screening of movies like Robin Hood (2010) - be it at American Corners, IRCs, or even universities (original or dubbed) - will only benefit the work of any American (and/or British) PAO/public diplomat. Although it can be "just" another movie based on a medieval legend that comes way before anyone in Europe even knew the American continent existed (or so the story goes), it can speak to the hearts of many. At the very least, it can make them think, once again, about liberty, its significance and value; and perhaps, make them more appreciative of it, since it is not perceived as coming directly from America.

As for the "tea party movement" and all that fish: that will, most certainly, stay within the federal bounds of the United States. Given the public diplomacy potential of this sort - although indirect and vague - Robin deserves better.


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