Soft Power, Cinema and the BRICS

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The Centre for World Cinemas and Digital Cultures is delighted to announce that it has secured support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to fund the research network Soft Power, Cinema and the BRICS ( Planned network activities include symposia and film-related activities in Sao Paulo (October 2016) and an international conference in London (June 2017). Network members include academics and industry professionals from BRICS nations, the UK and the USA.

Coined by political scientist Joseph Nye at the end of the 1980s, soft power refers to the ability of a country to influence through attraction rather than persuasion. It implies recognising what those from other countries already find attractive about a given country, creating new attractive features (as a way of countering unattractive features associated with one’s country) and producing a coherent narrative that incorporates these attractive features, so that they might be mobilised in an effort to gain favour. The growing interest in soft power is, for Nye, a reflection of geo-political shifts brought about by globalisation, which themselves are notably illustrated in the formation and formal association of the BRICS group of emerging nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). There is, then, an explicit connection between the growing interest in soft power and emerging nations.

The network will investigate the relationship between non-state actors in the cultural industries of the BRICS countries  and national ‘soft power’ strategies, by focusing on the nature and function of the film industry. One of its key objectives is to bring culture, and specifically film, to the centre of discussions on soft power, by focusing on big-screen narratives, and their on-and off-screen stories, with a view to analysing the extent to which film industries are being harnessed in the exercise of cultural diplomacy and the generation of soft power, and to what ends.

Rationale and Research Context

In 2012, the acquisition of AMC, the second largest movie theatre chain in the U.S, by China’s Dalian Wanda Group, along with the high-profile discussions that took place between President Xi Jinping and several of the Hollywood majors aimed at building a strong Chinese-American film partnership, provoked a good deal of attention amongst industry commentators. These developments were seen by many as a worrying example of China’s strategic focus on its global ‘soft power’, with the Chinese authorities using the country’s economic might to buy its way into the Hollywood ‘Dream Factory’ and in so doing gain the kind of cultural influence American governments have long sought to achieve via this particular industry (Cooke). This was a significant moment in the history of the world’s cinema, seeming to point to a shift in the media landscape that was symptomatic of wider developments in global power relationships, also evident in the growing significance of the BRICS as an economic and political grouping, of which China is a key member (the others being Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa).

The BRIC countries represent 40% of the world’s population and are predicted by some commentators to overtake the G7 economies in the next 20 years or so. Economist Jim O’Neill, who first coined the expression, could scarcely have imagined that this grouping would become a political entity holding regular international summits or that, in 2014, it would create its own financial structure, the New Development Bank, aimed at providing an alternative to the US-dominated International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

In this research network we will look at the implications for global film culture of this apparent shift in power relations between the developed and developing world, along with the increasing emphasis national and transnational organisations place on the role of ‘soft power’ in global foreign policy, focussing specifically on the BRICS. Individual members of this group, most obviously China and India, have been much discussed in this context. However, the diverse, and often competing ways the group as a whole engages with film as a medium of artistic expression, on the one hand, and a soft power ‘resource’ on the other, along with the wider implications for world cinemas of its members’ very different, and dynamic, positions within the global media landscape, remain to be investigated comparatively.

The project is timely, given the following: soft power is an explicit element of the current (2012 start) Chinese government five-year plan; one of the EU’s strategic objectives is to promote culture as a vital element of EU international relations; and the first report of the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s influence (‘Persuasion and Power in the Modern World’) was published last year (2014) and was widely commented on in the international press. As well as drawing on evidence from representatives of British commercial interests, culture industry representatives and academics (including members of the proposed network via Leeds’ Centre for World Cinemas), the committee made reference to the so-called ‘rise of the rest’ and very notably sought and reproduced information on soft power issues relating to BRICS countries (especially China and Brazil). Thus the time is clearly ripe to explore in greater detail the employment of soft-power strategies by emerging nations, in order to nuance discussions on what successful soft power ‘looks like’ in different parts of the globe, and by providing analysis from the perspective of film culture.

Academic interest in the UK in soft power is growing, as evidenced by a series of conferences hosted by U. Westminster in 2013. China and India have entirely dominated discussions to date: this network both ensures coverage of Russia, South Africa, and key player Brazil, and it provides a timely focus/clear set of research objectives relating specifically to cinema. The network also builds on both the connections established and the research findings of a World Universities Network-supported project entitled Film Policy, Cultural Diplomacy and Soft Power (2012-2014), which brought together scholars working on cultural policy issues relating to soft power in China, Hong Kong, Denmark, South Africa, Brazil and the UK, with a focus on how policymakers seek to achieve soft power objectives, and how they negotiate artistic, economic and political networks.

Aims and Objectives

The central theme of the proposed research network is an investigation of the relationship between non-state actors in the cultural industries of the BRICS countries and national ‘soft power’ strategies, with a particular focus on the nature and function of the film industry. The network will look comparatively at the engagement by filmmakers, producers, distributors and exhibitors with the soft power/nation-branding agendas of their country in order to ascertain whether this engagement is explicit or implicit, what forms it takes, and with what results. It seeks to investigate the competing pressures across the BRICS that shape the ways its members understand film as a vehicle of soft power, exploring the role soft power plays along the industry’s entire value change, from production to consumption, as well as the way it influences the types of films audiences around the world get to see. Its ambition is to take World Cinema research in a new direction by proposing a methodology to evaluate cinema’s weight as a soft-power asset, taking as a starting point an analysis of both on- and off-screen stories.

The network programme will frame research questions in a comparative context. Working with a range of academics and non-HEI partners, the network will focus on the following key interlinked areas:

A) Domestic versus foreign film production and consumption.

B) Film and the ‘national strategic narrative’.

Questions to be addressed will include:

  • When considering film as a soft-power asset, must we distinguish between production aimed at domestic and overseas audiences?
  • How might filmic narratives intended for an overseas audience differ from those for domestic circulation, and has the new ‘soft-power agenda’ made an impact on the kinds of narratives/representations that are being produced?
  • If BRICS countries are victims of ‘sustained negative stereotyping’ (Dennison) at the hands of foreign filmmakers, what is this impact of this (perceived or otherwise) on national narratives?
  • What place does such a narrative currently hold in BRICS countries?
  • How stable is the narrative and what are the implications of narrative instability for film industries and soft power generation?
  • How are films perceived to affect this narrative and how might reputational damage, for example, be quantified?
  • What is the relationship between international co-productions and national narratives, in the context of soft-power generation?

Timetable of Events

21-22 January 2016 Network Launch event and initial steering committee meeting in Leeds.

February 2016 Launch of network website, to be updated throughout the lifetime of the network grant.

April/May 2016 Publication of special issue of New Cinemas film journal (in English and Chinese) on Soft Power, the BRICS and World Cinemas, with articles by network members Dennison, Meleiro, Cooke, Homewood, Strukov and Devasundaram.

May 2016 series of Skype meetings with network members in preparation for network activities in Brazil in October 2016.

August 2016 Steering Committee meeting (Skype).

October 2016 Public-facing symposium; Q and As by network members linked to Sao Paulo International Film Festival and workshop (at British Council) in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

December 2016 series of Skype meetings with network members to discuss future funding of network.

April 2017 E-Publication of co-produced report on Cinema and the BRICS (with Imagem Corporativa, Brazil).

April 2017 series of Skype meetings with network members in preparation for network conference in June.

September 2017 International network conference in SOAS, London, with papers delivered by network members. Steering committee meeting to discuss future of network.

December 2017 summary report of activities and findings of the network to be produced by Dennison and Dwyer.

Second semester of 2018 publication of edited collection of essays by network members.

Contato no Brasil

Alessandra Meleiro (