Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Exporting Raymond" and PD

One of the advantages of being in the academia [especially as a student] is that you can get some serious breaktime over the holidays, which, for me, means time away from academic books and my laptop [well, as you can tell, I have started missing them by now]. Instead, that time is spent on real human interaction, some not so healthy gastrotravel, and catching up on movies.

It was in pursuit of the latter that we stumbled upon "Exporting Raymond" in the nearest Red Box kiosk. At the first look it sounded a little weird, but since it was about "exporting" an American sitcom to Russia, I gave in to my friend's suggestion and decided to give it a try. (OK, I'll be honest, the cover/poster had an important persuasive role, too...)

Image from MovieRewind.

It is a hilarious documentary about the creator of "Everybody Loves Raymond", Phil Rosenthal, who - after his show's immense success in the U.S. - gets invited by Sony Pictures to come up with the Russian equivalent. Enthusiastic and perhaps a little too overconfident, Rosenthal flies to Moscow only to find out that the image of the transformation he had in mind (which, in essence, involved direct translation of the script and perhaps a little adjustment in terms of names and places) is not going to work.

After months of work and multiple attempts at various approaches, Rosenthal and his Moscow-based compatriots have to settle for a dramatically different version created by the help of the local members of the team. The documentary claims, however, that it ended up being a success on the Russian market, despite the fact that the Americans had a very hard time understanding how or why Russians would consider their product as funny.

What Rosenthal was obviously missing was the need to contextualize the themes, actors, and even phrases, to which his potential audience would relate. He went in with the assumption that mundane, family issues - a la Americana - would be universally relatable. At some point he even says something along the lines of: "People all around the world have families. All families have similar issues." In short, what worked in the U.S., should have worked everywhere else, too, according to him.

That is why he is having such a hard time comprehending what is wrong. At first, he was not even willing to be flexible enough in terms of adaptation and localization, whether of the major themes or of the minute details. It is this (should I say?) naïveté and gradual transformation of the director (who is also the narrator of the documentary) that makes the film so funny and useful, especially from a public diplomacy perspective.

A quote of note from the New York Time's piece on the documentary, which came out last April:

“Here’s how it was explained to me,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “They’re coming, the Russians today, from a place of a little humiliation, having lost the cold war, and the last thing they want or need is some American coming and telling them what to do. So maybe that accounts for some of the resistance I was getting. Or maybe senses of humor are different all over the world. But I couldn’t help believing that dealing with your parents and your wife and your kids and your brother, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a common thing.”

Since most of the interaction happened in Russian (and thus, through an interpreter), Rosenthal was clearly unaware of what was going on or what certain expressions and "explanations" provided to him (often translated verbatim) meant in the Russian context. Although he claims to have "finally understood" Russia, its people, and therefore, what needed to be changed in the show, he was clearly oblivious to his unawareness even when making this post-production documentary. He came in with certain stereotypes, walked out with many more (although some of the initial ones appeared to have changed, indeed ), yet he seemed to have failed to recognize that.

What has public diplomacy got to do with it? Quite obviously, everything. Although to me, personally, the American-Russian case makes it all the more amusing, I believe this film could be about any other case of public diplomacy, including the process and the lessons that can (and should) be learned as a result.

And since it was about an American trying to communicate with a foreign public, I'll just stick to the American example. As I might have noted previously on this blog, I am very ambivalent about the universality of certain values and norms that are believed (by the U.S.) to be applicable to all, identically and uniformly, just like Rosenthal's assumptions about family values and issues. As the film demonstrates, however, the issue is not that there are no families elsewhere, or no related problems, but rather that the day-to-day issues, perspectives, and relations are slightly - yet significantly - different from what the Americans expect them to be (naturally, based on their exclusively-American experience).

Three important highlights (even if not new), just from the example above:

1 - Values of liberty and democracy, although espoused and desired by most (if not all) people, cannot be, and consequently should not be expected to be, identical around the world. The specific shades, details, and forms should be highly contextualized (historically, culturally, socially, geographically, etc.) in order to have effective local adaptation.

2 - Effective public diplomacy -- i.e. international, and therefore cross-cultural, communication -- cannot happen unless both sides have sufficient (if not deep) understanding and appreciation of each other. The lack of this understanding, stereotypes, rigidity, and the refusal to accept alternative perspectives/experiences as valid, are the perfect recipe for failure: not only does it hamper the communication process itself, it also curtails the effectiveness of the message by making it inappropriate, unrelatable, and possibly even unacceptable. This can happen to countries, institutions, and organizations, yet individuals seem to be the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, it is the individuals who drive most of the public diplomacy efforts - whether American or not - and therefore, it is all the more important for them to avoid resembling Rosenthal. Please.

3 - This is a perfect case example of American cultural diplomacy. Close to none official involvement, while the private organization/individual are trying to give it their best. However, they never even consider the wider implications of their efforts (even if essentially profit-driven). To them, it's strictly television, and although in many ways Rosenthal was trying "to tell an American story with a Russian accent", his objective was not to bring the two nations together. I guess there are two lessons here: (1) America's cultural diplomats rarely recognize their diplomatic role abroad and, (2) as suggested by the New York Times piece,  for such projects to work one either has to stick to the original language (i.e. in this case, just dub the original show in Russian, so as to manage expectations) or learn the local language well (and with it, the culture).

In short: it's a good watch, even for non-PD folks!


  1. Lena -- Great posting. Best, John (Brown)

  2. Thank you, John. Your support and encouragement is always *much* appreciated! :)