by Bob Baker
While many films made by the US Information Agency (USIA) were very useful in Africa to tell about American society and policies, two were not. These two, one about President Kennedy and the other about American agriculture, had the opposite result from that intended. Local African culture distorted the films’ messages.
The USIA film about Kennedy, “Years of Lightning, Day of Drums”, was made after his assassination in 1963. It included clips from his speeches that supported major U.S. policies along with touching footage of his family life and his funeral procession. Directed by Hollywood’s Bruce Herschensohn and narrated by the star Gregory Peck, it became the USIA’s biggest ever film hit worldwide. It was immensely popular in Africa as well as elsewhere. Uganda’s Prime Minister, like several others in Africa, even sponsored a special screening at a local cinema that raised money for charity.
Beside placing the film in Uganda’s 35 mm commercial cinemas, I screened it in 16mm format several times at Makerere University for students. I had a strange feeling about the student audience reaction at the end of the first screening. They were subdued in some odd way.
To check out my feelings about their reactions, I wrote out a single page questionnaire and passed it out to students at the end of two more screenings. (Earlier in my career, I had worked for the USIA Research Service, which did public opinion and media impact studies, and written questionnaires for African public opinion surveys.) The questionnaire tried to find out what messages from the film had come across to the students. The unmistakable result in the 80 completed forms was Ugandan student anger that “America” had killed a great man who liked Africa and blacks. None of them took on board any of the many U.S. policy points made in his speeches.
I sent my report on student reaction to the documentary, and suggested a proper opinion survey to measure the impact of “Years of Lightning, Day of Drums”. My telegram to USIA elicited no reply. So, I sent in another telegram reporting my findings and suggesting a proper study. Silence. In American eyes, the film was considered so good that a special act of Congress was passed permitting it to be shown in the U.S., by-passing legal restrictions against distributing USIA-produced materials in the U.S. Nobody in Washington wanted to know that the most popular film ever produced by USIA backfired in Africa.
Despite this experience, I remained as ethnocentric about film as any American film producer. While serving in Bamako, Mali, I received an excellent USIA 45-minute documentary film called “Harvest”. With a great, understated jazz soundtrack and no voice script, it used beautiful color photography to capture harvest time across the U.S. I liked especially that it showed how hard American farmers worked to gather the harvest. The film showed apples, grapes, wheat, corn, barley, all the bounty of America’s vast harvest gathered mainly by sweating white men. It carried the good message that in America, whites as well as blacks did a huge amount of physical labor as well as using harvesting machines.
I invited forty Malians from the media and the agriculture ministry to my big barn of a living room in Bamako. I served drinks and an evening buffet supper, then screened the film in 16mm for my guests.
At the end of the film, I expected praise for the great photography and music, if nothing else. Instead, there was dead silence. Everyone stood up and quickly went out the front door into the night.
The penny dropped for me the next day. Mali’s peasants sweated hard to bring in a few items in tiny crops wrung from an arid, poor country. “Harvest” made the contrast with Mali painful. I never showed that film again.
Bob Baker began his career with the US Information Agency as an intelligence analyst analyzing communist propaganda in East Africa. Subsequently, as a foreign service officer, Baker served in Uganda, Mali, London, Germany, Australia, Los Angeles, VOA Washington, and the Regional Program Office in Vienna.