Intercultural cinema presents many difficulties in terms of relations between cultures. This is because film has a huge impact on people’s worldviews and perceptions so when these films present inaccurate portrayals of other cultures, these portrayals become reflected in cultural perceptions. I decided to test this theory by watching a cross-cultural film and reflecting on my perceptions of the culture it presents afterwards. It would have been very easy to choose a film which is incredibly inaccurate and disrespectful to the culture it presents, however I decided to watch and reflect on the popular 1993 cross-cultural film Cool Runnings.
I used a list of questions from travel journalist Michael McAleer to do this:
- What does this movie say about another culture?
- What does it say about my culture?
- Who are the people in this story and more importantly what does their story say to me?
- How can I learn if the perceptions of the other culture are correct?
- How does their world look differently after watching this movie?
- How can my interaction with another culture be different understanding these issues?
Cool Runnings follows the true story of the Jamaican bobsled team who competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics. Even though the movie is about a very proud moment in Jamaica’s history, no one from Jamaica was involved in the production. The director Jon Turteltaub is a New Yorker and the writers and main actors are all American as well. Despite this, the movie does seem to present a very respectful portrayal of Jamaican culture. I answered the questions after watching the movie and the answers were somewhat surprising.
- The movie portrays Jamaican culture as being very inclusive and collectivistic. What it says about the culture is that Jamaicans have values such as being resilient and a proudness of where they come from. This particular movie does present very positive ideas and representations of Jamaica and its’ people.
- Since this movie does not portray Australian culture, I chose to focus on how it portrays American culture. Many of the Americans in this film, and in fact most of the other bobsled competitors treat the Jamaican bobsled team with rudeness and disrespect, largely dismissing the country as not having the ability to compete in the bobsled event. This does lend an authenticity to the film due to it being made by Americans, and Disney at that, who have been known to sanitise the truth to make themselves seem better. However the portrayal of the Jamaicans may also be reflective of the American value of rooting for the underdog.
- The protagonists are the Jamaican bobsled team, who did in reality compete in the 1988 Olympics in Calgary. Their story is very inspiring and it is hard not to feel happy after watching the film.
- First-hand accounts of the culture are a very good source for identifying which portrayals are correct. Academic sources are also very helpful to find out about another culture. In terms of this particular movie and story, I found a reddit page (I know I know, Reddit is the gutter of the internet) where Dudley ‘Tal’ Stokes, who was the original founder of the Jamaican bobsled team, answered questions in the lead up to the Winter Olympics this year. The major difference between the real story and the movie depiction which I identified is that Stokes was a captain in the Jamaican military whose commanding officer told him he had to start a bobsled team for Jamaica. The movie depiction of the catalyst for the team was that the character based on Stokes missed out on running in the Summer Olympics and wanted to represent his country in any way possible. This reappropriation is understandable as militia presence in a Disney movie probably would not go over very well.
I also must admit that I assumed that getting the actors to speak English in a Jamaican accent was probably very disrespectful and inaccurate. However some very simple research showed that English is in fact the official language of Jamaica, and that it is spoken with “a distinctive rhythmic and melodic quality”.
- After watching this movie I have very positive perceptions of Jamaican culture. To be completely honest I did not know very much about Jamaica before watching the film and now I do base my perceptions of Jamaica on Cool Runnings, which does fit with the idea that many people do base their global perceptions on cinema.
- Understanding that we base many of our ideas of external cultures on how they are depicted by cinema may allow much more successful intercultural communication. However I also think that the positive values and depiction displayed in this movie would be more beneficial to Jamaicans than negative, even if it is not a 100% accurate retelling of what happened.
Overall I think that this is a successful cross-cultural film, and I also feel I have learnt a lot through actively watching it and thinking about my reactions to it.