Using Movies to Do Public Diplomacy

February 27, 2015 By David Stein

Everyone is still buzzing about this year’s Oscar winners, but did you know that select American films are creating important connections – among people and ideas – as part of our international public diplomacy? This is not about promoting American movies, which have long had wide success around the world, but about fostering dialogue and debate about issues in democratic societies.

Diplomacy often involves government officials talking to one another, but the American Film Showcase, a partnership between the Department of State and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, is one of many effective models of public diplomacy, which reaches out directly to people in other countries. It brings to audiences worldwide not the latest blockbuster, which may do fine on its own, but quality American documentary films that rarely have wide commercial distribution overseas.

Award-winning documentary film maker Eric Neudel recently traveled to Russia in the midst of the escalating crisis in Ukraine. He was there with co-director Alison Gilkey and their film Lives Worth Living, which tells the story of the American disability rights movement. They screened their film at several different venues with support from local State Department staff. While the discussions following the film often initially focused on the issue of disability rights in Russia, they would often morph into a debate about civil rights in general. Fostering civil rights debates in Russia is without a doubt a worthwhile U.S. foreign policy objective.

This is not to say that public diplomacy is going to solve the crisis in Ukraine. Of course not. But it can be an important tool in concert with our development and more traditional diplomacy, and alongside our economic and military strength.

To quote former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, “We must lead with a robust and comprehensive use of all of our instruments of power, employing cultural, educational, economic, diplomatic, development, and military tools alike.”

With strong funding for the International Affairs Budget, we can do just that.