It is well recognized among US strategists and policy makers that the so-called War on Terror is a "war of ideas" in which the Western world needs to "tell its story better." 1 Much has been written about the use of new social media such as Twitter to drive and shape political narratives,2 but history shows the potential "soft" power of propaganda films as well. Today, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that in Western democracies, cinema is the sole province of commercial filmmakers who are driven not by politics but by profits and therefore the appetites of their audiences.3 This article revisits literature on the propaganda value of cinema and suggests that the emergence of transnational filmmaking presents an opportunity for greater collaboration between US and Middle Eastern filmmakers to produce films designed to unify moderate Muslims against Islamic extremist messages4 and perhaps even to dissuade some of those extremists from their incorrect interpretations of Islam.
Filmmakers, acting independently, tend to incorporate their own national biases into their work, as can be seen in many Western anti-terrorism films. Such films appeal to like-minded audiences, but very few are designed specifically to influence Muslim audiences. Western films instead tend to alienate these audiences by depicting the Islamic extremist as an irrational "other" to be dominated by Western heroes, conflating Muslims with Arabs and terrorists, and representing Israel as the victim of Palestinian terror.5 But American filmmakers have an authentic story to tell that could resonate with the Muslim world—namely, the unique ability of US culture and society to assimilate immigrant Muslim populations.6 Americans are also especially religious compared to other Western countries, but American filmmakers have been reluctant to address religion, and "the relationship between violence" and fundamentalist Islam.7
Egyptian and Algerian films are potentially more persuasive at reaching Muslim audiences because they offer more subtle depictions of Islamic extremists and terrorists as complex individuals who are misguided, and they tend to justify Palestinian violence against Israel (as do Palestinian films, naturally).8 European filmmakers have begun collaborating with Middle Eastern filmmakers to produce films in response to Islamic fundamentalism, and the US government should consider encouraging US filmmakers to do the same.
This article describes the historical use of films as propaganda and their effectiveness and recommends that the United States consider promoting and even funding collaboration between US and Middle Eastern filmmakers to produce anti-terrorism films for consumption by foreign audiences. Documentaries are worth considering, but the most effective types of films appear to be narratives (feature films and television miniseries) in which ideas are more subtly, even-handedly, and therefore persuasively delivered.
A Brief History of Cinematic Propaganda
Literature on the history of propaganda films shows that the United States cannot rely on commercial US filmmakers acting independently to produce narratives that will counter Islamic extremism. In a time of war, US filmmakers tend to produce patriotic films that unify Americans and their allies but alienate others. And in peacetime, they tend to depict US society as depraved, which plays into the hands of enemies. Collaboration among international filmmakers, especially European and Middle Eastern filmmakers, has resulted in a "transnational" narrative that is more balanced and genuine and therefore more palatable and even persuasive to a wide range of audiences worldwide.
Feature films were first made as early as 1895, and their effectiveness as propaganda improved with the advent of sound in 1927.9 Mustafa Özen describes the Ottoman Empire's early use of films as propaganda during World War I.10 Post–World War I commercial war films were, in effect, propaganda films that justified isolationism and, later, appeasement because they conveyed a message to the public that, apart from the heroism of the fighting man, the Great War was a "political catastrophe." 11 Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, and Leon Trotsky took control of the early Soviet cinema as propaganda "to implement a proletarian and atheist culture," 12 and the 1925 Soviet silent film Battleship Potemkin13 is cited as an effective propaganda film against the former Tsarist regime (and any lingering royalist sentiment among the population).14 In 1933, the British Film Institute was founded to promote the use of film for propaganda purposes throughout the Empire,15 including the Bantu Educational Kinema Experiment (1935–1937), in which British films were produced to acculturate Africans in East and Central Africa to capitalism and Western society.16
In 1935, Hitler commissioned the brilliant female director Leni Riefenstahl to glorify him and the Nazi regime in Triumph of the Will,17 and five years later, his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels commissioned the 1940 German anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süss.18
In response, England produced propaganda films that "successfully appealed to the interests of American audiences" 19 to draw the United States into the war against Germany "with depictions of the brutality of the Gestapo." 20 A good example is the 1941 British film Forty-Ninth Parallel,21 in which Laurence Olivier renders a cartoonish performance as a Quebecois who is murdered by invading Germans. The British also used propaganda films to gain the confidence and support of their West African colonialists. These films, transported by jeep and riverboat into remote areas, emphasized "the power and valour in combat of imperial military units, including the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy." 22
In 1942, the US Office of War Information (OWI) was established,23 and the mission of its movie-review unit, the Bureau of Motion Pictures, was to influence the production of commercial films to promote the war effort to American audiences.24 The Bureau also selected, acquired, and produced films for foreign distribution to 85 countries.25 It collaborated with foreign governments and private organizations to tailor films for specific countries, "suggesting ways in which a film could deliver stronger win-the-war messages." 26 Some notable commercial products are the 1942 films Blondie for Victory and Star Spangled Rhythm,27 which promoted volunteerism to support domestic war efforts; Casablanca (1942),28 which portrayed the evils of the Germans in occupied French territories; and Mission to Moscow (1943),29 which glorified US ally Stalin. In 1943, Congress discontinued funding OWI, and the movie-review unit was shut down.30
After World War II, the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 established a bureaucracy (the USIE) for the management of exchange programs in arts, education, and culture.31 Despite the proven success of feature films, the USIE produced and commissioned only documentary films, and by 1951, it claimed over 400 million viewers per year. The films highlighted Americans' high standard of living and the United States' leadership in science, technology, and industry. The purpose was "to convince foreigners of their ‘own potentialities as individuals and nations.' " 32 Mobile projection units were dispatched to remote locations, especially in South America and Africa,33 where the documentaries were very well received, primarily because of the novelty of cinema in rural areas.
Due to the perceived propaganda value of documentaries, the United States continued their production during the entirety of the Cold War.34 In 1952, President Harry Truman consolidated all of the government's overseas film activities within the International Information Administration (IIA),35 and in 1953, under President Dwight Eisenhower, the responsibilities of the IIA were transferred to the secretary of state under the newly created US Information Agency (USIA).36 The USIA oversaw radio stations like Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
In 1956, the USIA introduced documentaries designed to fight the Cold War by telling "the world about peace and the dignity of the individual." 37 Domestic distribution of the films was initially prohibited because this "US Government agency should not be able to brainwash Americans or put things out there that would not be considered objective information." 38 (Apparently there was no such quibble regarding foreign audiences.)
During the John Kennedy presidency, the USIA's film program flourished under Hollywood producer George Stevens, Jr., who commissioned documentary films designed to reinforce the "ideological agenda and foreign policy purpose of the United States." 39 The USIA favored short-form documentaries and produced thousands of them because they "present a point of view quickly and dramatically." 40 But "short subjects" were falling out of fashion, no longer shown before the main feature in movie theaters, and the USIA lost influence over the production of commercial films.41
Because of the United States' preoccupation with the Cold War, counterterrorism did not become a high priority until the 1990s.42 In 1993, "USIA Director [Joseph] Duffey called for the country to engage the world on issues of ‘the economy, the environment, drugs and terrorism.'" 43 But the perceived nature and threat of terrorism was not enough to cause a resurgence of public diplomacy, and the USIA was dismantled in 1999.44 Public diplomacy did not end with the demise of the USIA, but efforts were less centralized, and the governmental production of documentary films ended.
The 9/11 attacks inspired a fresh round of commercial anti-terrorism, pro-Western films. As Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti stated, "We are not limited to domestic measures. The American entertainment industry has a unique capacity to reach audiences worldwide with important messages." 45 At the outset of the US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, "the film divisions of the major media conglomerates expressed their eagerness to become part of the war effort." 46
With a propaganda strategy "aimed at terrorists rather than Islam in general," 47 President George W. Bush established the Office of Global Communications,48 which focused on radio and television programming.49 The Office promoted television programs that focused on Muslim life in the United States, but many TV stations in Islamic countries refused to air the programs.50 VOA was expanded to broadcast radio programs in Afghanistan, while countermeasures were taken against the Taliban that included the bombing of its radio station Radio Shariah.51
Currently, the secretary of state and the Broadcasting Board of Governors remain authorized to use appropriated funds "for public diplomacy information programs … intended for foreign audiences … through press, publications, radio, motion pictures, the Internet, and other information media, including social media." 52 The State Department exercises this authority regarding motion pictures through its American Film Showcase, which coordinates with US embassies to sponsor workshops with emerging filmmakers, youth groups, and leaders of nongovernmental organizations to address local issues through cultural exchanges.53
Effectiveness of Cinema as Propaganda
There are no useful data on the effectiveness of cinema as propaganda. The USIA's primary performance measure was the size of its audiences, which is a measure of success used by commercial film producers.54 But Hollywood is trying only to strike an emotional chord with audiences; it is not often trying to change their hearts and minds. The USIA may have dazzled millions of unsophisticated foreign viewers with the new technology of filmmaking, but there is no evidence documenting what effect, if any, the substance of the films had on their points of view.
Subjective, qualitative assessments are available, but they may be biased with over-optimism or wishful thinking. For example, British information officers judged their World War II propaganda films to be effective in "mobilizing people to the war effort;" 55 Congress expressed its approval of USIA documentaries by continuing to fund them;56 Jackie Kennedy wrote to pioneer television journalist Edward R. Murrow, "You made the world look at us in a new way;" 57 and the April 1966 issue of Newsweek hailed the "soft policy" films of the USIA.58 But there are no studies, performance data, or other concrete criteria to back up these opinions.
James Combs and Sara Combs contend that, despite the high quality of USIA's documentaries, "Hollywood was the chief source of images of America for foreigners. This turned out to be the best propaganda the government could wish for—messages that flaunted American affluence, freedom, and vitality." 59 They cite as examples of effective propaganda feature films That Hamilton Woman60 and Mrs. Miniver. Mrs. Miniver "promoted positive representations of British people and the national struggle against Fascism." 61 Prime Minister Winston Churchill reportedly said the film helped the war effort "more than a whole ﬂotilla of destroyers could." 62 President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered "propaganda leaflets with the vicar's stirring sermon dropped over cities in Occupied Europe." 63 Wilson P. Dizard, a retired Foreign Service officer, wrote that "arguably movies were the most potent mass media instrument developed in the twentieth century—and the United States led the world in exploiting it through Hollywood films." 64
In his extensive survey of propaganda films of the Soviet Union (1917–1928), Germany (1933–1945), and England (1938–1945), film historian Nicholas Reeves argues that documentaries are not effective at shaping public opinion65 but acknowledges the possible propaganda value of feature films. He states, "There can be little doubt that, in contrast to all the other examples of [documentary] film propaganda that we have discussed, [feature] films produced in Britain during the Second World War did achieve much success." 66 Feature films can have propaganda value, but the conditions have to be just right. Done incorrectly, they can be ineffective or, worse, counterproductive.
Because they are effective at solidifying or shaping public opinion, feature films can stir up hatred. D.W. Griffith's 1915 feature film Birth of a Nation67 is cited as an embarrassing example of a film that was effective in carrying "a virulent message of racism, leading to a revival of the KKK [Ku Klux Klan—a militant white supremacist group that arose following the US Civil War] in the 1920s." 68 Totalitarian regimes have also recognized the propaganda value of feature films to stir up both ultra-patriotism and hatred of others, which is a plot point in the 2009 Quentin Tarantino anti-Nazi film Inglourious Basterds.69 Jud Süss70 has been cited as "one of the most notorious and successful pieces of antisemitic film propaganda produced in Nazi Germany." 71
Many modern commercial US films are likely counterproductive as propaganda in foreign countries because they focus on the negative aspects of American society. Self-criticism can be an effective tool of persuasion for foreign audiences, but the airing of "dirty laundry" is easily misunderstood and can be used by foreign governments as an informational weapon against the United States. During the 1960s, some in Congress questioned the wisdom of airing our civil rights problems on film.72 At the 1970 Sorrento Film Festival in Italy, President Richard Nixon's USIA director Frank Shakespeare lamented the vision of America in Hollywood films, where "most of the [Hollywood] films deal with social aberration in American society and tend to create the illusion … that we are a purposeless society dedicated to violence and vice." 73 As Bernard Rubin wrote in 1971, "Motion pictures, shown around the world in theaters or on television, are often condemned for introducing noxious social ideas and, by repetition of these themes, forming bases for hatred between men and nations."74 In 1993, President Bill Clinton's USIA director Joseph Duffey bemoaned the fact that commercial media represented the United States as a "culture of instant gratification." 75 The State Department therefore mistrusts directors like Quentin Tarantino and favors directors like Steven Spielberg.76 According to media scholar Yosefa Loshitzky, Spielberg's Munich77 was "Hollywood's ultimate Zionist apology, perpetuat[ing] the myth of Israel's unchallenged moral superiority." 78
All of these assessments about the propaganda value of films concern the solidifying or shaping of latent public opinion. But films may also have the potential to persuade or dissuade. Josef Stalin is quoted as telling a visitor from the United States, "If I could control the medium of American motion pictures, I would need nothing else to convert the entire world to Communism." 79 As discussed in the following section, Egyptian and Algerian filmmakers have been producing films since the early 1990s to criticize Islamic fundamentalists and educate Middle Eastern audiences on the true, nonviolent precepts of Islam. Many such films are also critical of globalization and the West, but they denounce violence as a viable solution. Egyptian and Algerian filmmakers have also collaborated with European filmmakers to produce even more persuasive, cross-cultural films, which are known in film studies as "transnational" films.
Transnational Anti-terrorism Cinema
As Combs and Combs point out, propaganda is less effective when it is easily recognized as propaganda. "When propaganda is obvious, it can be ignored as audiences suffer through it awaiting the next battle scene." 80 The most effective propaganda is "oblique and covert, interwoven in the fabric of a movie in a somewhat obscure fashion but apparent enough to have an impact without encountering … resistance" from the audience.81 As Peter Peterson of the Council on Foreign Relations writes, "The credibility of an American message will be enhanced significantly when it does not appear unilateral." 82 For this reason, documentaries are probably the least effective form of propaganda, just as Reeves concluded. Documentaries are generally viewed and accepted by those who are already sympathetic and resisted by viewers, if any, who hold opposing views.83
There is also the problem of communicating to a foreign audience.84 As an article in the October 2010 issue of Entertainment Diplomacy stated, "Film can be a tricky medium for an outsider to manipulate," 85 and there is a natural mistrust of a governmental role in communications.86 A transnational film, however, can be so internationally collaborative that it becomes difficult to determine its national origin.87 The degree to which a film is transnational can be assessed according to the following attributes: realism, stories based on real-life events, intercultural dialogue, multiple native-spoken languages, international settings and filming locations, diasporic and exilic themes, narratives about globalization, international stars, and most importantly, international collaboration between or among filmmakers.88
Carlo Testa, a professor of comparative literature, examined several Italian films on left-wing terrorism from 1971 through 2002 and determined that the most persuasive condemnations of terrorism were found in films with universal, as opposed to parochial, themes.89 Cinematic exchange results in a hybridization of ideas and approaches, so transnational films tend to carry universal themes that will be more likely to reach and resonate with foreign audiences.
Since the mid-1990s, Egyptian and Algerian cinema has challenged Islamic fundamentalism, which is viewed by Cairo as a threat to Egyptians' way of life.90 In 1994, Egyptian filmmaker Nader Galal made The Terrorist, which is said to be the first Egyptian film to denounce Islamic terrorism.91 The story is about an Islamic extremist who evades law enforcement by living with a modern Muslim family. After seeing how they live, he has doubts about his extreme views of Islam. The Egyptian Minister of Information praised the film for revealing "the internal contradictions within the terrorist movement" and for showing that "whenever anyone is allowed to see society clearly, they give up extremism." 92
Many Middle Eastern anti-terrorism films also criticize globalization (closely associated with the West), which is perceived to be an underlying cause of terrorism. In his contribution to the collaborative film September 11, Egyptian director Youssef Chahine criticizes both Islamic fundamentalists and the United States, arguing that the United States is responsible for the 9/11 attacks because it created the monster that attacked it.93 "Americans decide who the terrorist is," says Chahine (played by Nour El-Sharif) in his film.94 In the French-Egyptian collaboration The Other (1999),95 Chahine depicts poor and middle-class Egyptians as victims of both globalization and Islamic terrorism through star-crossed lovers Adam and Hanane, who are a modern-day Egyptian Romeo and Juliet.
The US government may be reluctant to promote the production of films that criticize the United States, but as security studies expert Michael Mazarr suggests, to be effective, anti-terrorism films should "serve up strong critiques of US culture and policies, so long as the proposed remedies are nonviolent." 96 And strategist Amy Zalman writes that "the United States will be well served … by learning to see itself as others see it in action … in shaping its end of a global dialogue." 97
There are also several examples of collaboration between European and Middle Eastern filmmakers to produce transnational films that express a distrust of Islamic fundamentalism, the West, and globalization. In Bab El-Oued City (1994),98 which is a French-German-Swiss-Algerian collaboration, Algerian filmmaker Merzak Allouache follows the conflict between a young Algerian man and local Islamic fundamentalists, hinting that the fundamentalists are supported by corrupt government officials.99 Before he is driven out, the local imam tells the fundamentalists, "Violence begets violence. Islam is a religion of tolerance, against violence." At the same time that this film criticizes Islamic fundamentalism, it associates Western influences with decadence and downfall.
Closed Doors (1999),100 the result of French-Egyptian collaboration, is "oriented to audiences and contexts of production outside the Middle East." 101 Egyptian filmmaker Atef Hetata depicts how Mohammad, a young, sexually repressed male growing up in a poor section of Cairo, is singled out and recruited to study at a local madrassa that espouses the creation of an Islamic nation. In the French-Algerian collaboration Rachida (2002),102 a female schoolteacher in Algiers defies terrorists who attempt to murder her for refusing to plant a bomb at the school where she teaches.
The Academy Award–nominated Dutch-Palestinian-Israeli-German-French collaboration Paradise Now (2005) is a strongly transnational film. Dutch-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad presents a balanced narrative about two Palestinian friends who are recruited to conduct a suicide bombing mission in Tel Aviv. The Arabic language film is shot on location in Nablus and Tel Aviv. After much soul-searching, one of the would-be suicide bombers backs out, and the other decides to go forward with it. Palestinians in the West Bank criticized the film for portraying the suicide bombers as "less than heroic and godless, hesitant in their missions," 103 while Israelis criticized the film because it would "encourage more terrorist attacks all over the world." 104
A rare example of a US film that addresses Islamic extremism is the 2005 diasporic narrative The War Within,105 in which screenwriter Ayad Akhtar, an American of Pakistani descent, employs extensive intercultural dialogue about Islamic faith in a story about Pakistani Hassan and his unwavering, successful plan to detonate a suicide bomb in New York City's Grand Central Station. Hassan was radicalized by his prison cell mate after American agents kidnap him from the streets of London and hand him over to Pakistani agents, who torture him for two years. After his release, Hassan goes to the United States to carry out a suicide bomb attack. The film is daring for a US film because it addresses the clash between moderate and radical Muslims and educates the viewer about the difference between greater jihad (the struggle within) and lesser jihad (the use of violence).
Conclusion and Recommendation
There is reason to believe that films, when properly made, can be a powerful propaganda tool to solidify the unity of moderate Muslims in the Middle East and perhaps even to help disabuse Islamic extremists of their misperceptions that Islam justifies the use of violence. The most effective vehicles for conveying this message in films to target audiences are probably feature films and television miniseries.106 Whereas "most European states have been very reluctant to … directly challenge the extremist ideology," 107 the United States has the moral authority to do so. During the Cold War, the USIA challenged communism by producing films that vaunted American values and achievements. The US government should consider the promotion of films that challenge Islamic extremism by emphasizing America's strong religious heritage, its open pluralistic society, and its successful assimilation of Muslims. The government should also consider the promotion of collaborative film projects between US and Middle Eastern filmmakers. Such collaboration is likely to result in a persuasive cross-cultural product that will help to unify moderate Muslims and counter the violent propaganda of Islamic extremists.
Performance data and measures should also be developed to determine the effectiveness of films in changing the knowledge, opinions, and attitudes of foreign audiences. Shortly before its demise in 1999, the USIA set forth some "examples of data sources" in its USIA 1997–2002 Strategic Plan "to determine whether progress is being made in achieving [its] performance objectives." 108 One data source that related directly to films was the "results of foreign audience research." Today, 17 years later, obtaining these data is much easier given the dramatic expansion of the internet, with broader access to films and the ability of audience members and critics to write online reviews, such as those found on Rottentomatoes.com and numerous blogs. Such instant feedback can help US strategists analyze and assess the effect that anti-terrorism films are having on audiences.