Clarence Dass wins World TV Award – and his audience – at Asia Media Summit 2013

L to R - Moneeza Hashmi (Jury chair), Clarence Dass, Young-Woo Park (Regional Director, UNEP), Yang Binyuan (AIBD Director)

L to R – Moneeza Hashmi (Jury chair), Clarence Dass, Young-Woo Park (Regional Director, UNEP), Yang Binyuan (AIBD Director)

Fijian filmmaker and broadcaster Clarence Dass is a star at Asia Media Summit 2013 in Manado, Indonesia, this week.

First, he won the coveted World TV Award in the Science and Environment category, for his futuristic, dramatized film titled “A Day at the Beach” made for and broadcast by Fiji Broadcasting Corporation (FBC) TV.

That earned him US$ 5,000 prize money, a trophy and a certificate – as well as an all expenses paid trip to Manado, where he just collected them in front of 350 broadcast managers and professionals from across Asia Pacific.

To top it up, he then spoke passionately and articulately during a session on taking action for sustainable development: how can media help?

While TV productions are all team work, public speaking is a solo art. Coming last of five panelists and youngest among them, Clarence made the most perceptive and practical remarks of all.

I maybe a bit biased, because he is an alumnus of a regional training workshop on ozone and media issues that I helped conduct in February in Kuala Lumpur. At the end of that workshop, we asked all participants to go home and make short films to enter for this year’s World TV Award.

Clarence would have done well in any case. Now in his early 30s, he has been active in Fiji media since 2001, having started in newspapers as a music journalist, before moving onto radio presenting/producing and then TV production.

He is very digitally savvy, but as his panel remarks showed, also people savvy.

“Today, we have to produce media on-the-go for people who are constantly on the go,” he said. “We have to find ways to bring sustainable development elements into this.”

In “A Day at the Beach”, Clarence imagines a futuristic, climate ravaged Fiji and the Pacific in 2063. A young girl asks: did it have to be this way? Wasn’t there something earlier generations could do?

A bit evocative of The Age of Stupid movie (2009), which I had mentioned during our training. But it’s a universal theme.

Clarence offered some advice from his station’s experience. Key among them is to mix information with entertainment, so as to attract and sustain audiences who are constantly distracted these days.

“As Fiji’s national broadcaster, we provide info-tainment and edu-tainment programmes all the time,” he said.

Clarence Dass speaks on sustainable development how can media help at Asia Media Summit 29 May 2013

Clarence Dass speaks on sustainable development how can media help at Asia Media Summit 29 May 2013

Other nuggets of wisdom from the amiable Pacific islander:

* Always ask for whom we are creating content. Knowing and profiling our audience is essential.

* We must make our content engaging. We need to find the right level so our programming appeals to both between laymen and experts.

* Beware of using too many effects and gimmicks, which can dilute the message. How much creativity is too much? Every producer has to ask that question.

* Small scale broadcasters in developing countries have to make content interesting on very limited budgets. Funding is a huge issue. But if managed properly, limited funds can still be made to go a long way.

A Day at the Beach Trailer

Avatar: Blockbuster film as socio-political and green allegory?


“Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Those words by American film producer and studio founder Sam Goldwyn (1879-1974) sum up Hollywood’s attitude to movie-making for the past many decades.

As I watched James Cameron’s latest blockbuster movie Avatar, I kept wondering how the master film maker managed to subvert this so completely. Beneath the 3D, special effects and riot of other worldly colours, the movie is one long (2 hrs 40 mins) and powerful commentary on why might is not right when it comes to exploiting resources — belonging to other countries, people, or as in this case, other worlds.

This is not just another worthy indie movie made by an idealistic movie maker defiant of Hollywood traditions and big money. James Cameron is one of the most commercially successful directors in the mainstream film industry – and perhaps one of the very few who can get away with this kind of stunt. At a budget of over US$ 300 million , Avatar is one of the most expensive films ever made, and the costliest ever for 20th Century Fox.

The big gamble is certainly paying off. On 26 January 2010 came the news that Avatar has surpassed Titanic as the highest-grossing movie worldwide. According to the studio, worldwide box office total for Avatar at that point stood at US$1.859 billion, beating the US$1.843 billion racked up by Cameron’s romantic drama in 1997-98. Avatar broke that record in a little over six weeks.

Part of the reason for such appeal is the extraordinary special effects: it’s an action-packed thriller where good and evil battle it out on another planet. The strange landscapes give it a video game like feel, but no small screen can match the theatrical experience, especially if you watch it in IMAX 3D (I didn’t). And for a change, this time the aliens inhabiting planet Pandora are benign, while it’s the humans who are ruthless invaders and brutal killers. Well, at least most of the time…

Here’s the official blurb: “Avatar takes us to a spectacular world beyond imagination, where a reluctant hero embarks on an epic adventure, ultimately fighting to save the alien world he has learned to call home. James Cameron, the Oscar-winning director of Titanic, first conceived the film 15 years ago, when the means to realize his vision did not exist yet. Now, after four years of production, AVATAR, a live action film with a new generation of special effects, delivers a fully immersive cinematic experience of a new kind, where the revolutionary technology invented to make the film disappears into the emotion of the characters and the sweep of the story.”

And here’s AVATAR – Official International Launch Trailer (HD)

Film critics and social commentators around the world have noticed the many layers of allegory in the film. Interestingly, depending on where you come from, the movie’s underlying ‘message’ can be different: anti-war, pro-environment, anti-Big Oil, anti-mining, pro-indigenous people, and finally, anti-colonial or anti-American. Or All of the Above…

It looks as if Cameron has made the ultimate DIY allegory movie: he gives us the template into which any one of us can add our favourite injustice or underdog tale — and stir well. Then sit back and enjoy while good triumphs over evil, and the military-industrial complex is beaten by ten-foot-tall, blue-skinned natives brandishing little more than bows and arrows (and with a little help from Ma Nature). If only it works that way in real life…

But the multi-purpose allegory is apparently working well. Take these two from opposite sides of the planet:

Thomas Eddlem wrote in The New American: “Avatar, is a visually stunning epic that is a perfect allegory for any of a dozen or more Indian wars in American history. From King Philip’s War in New England to Tippecanoe in Indiana to Horseshoe Bend in Alabama — and all the way across the American continent, for that matter — the story was the same. Colonists simply take land from the natives, as the Sully explains: ‘This is how it’s done. When people are sitting on something that you want, you make them your enemy so that you can drive them out.’

Mayank Shekhar wrote in The Hindustan Times newspaper: “Between a green worldview and the globe’s war over a natural resource, James Cameron’s twin analogies of present-day politics are fairly complete. They lend his science fiction ‘event picture’ a certain soul, even if not much of a story line.”

So did Cameron set out trying to send a message? Or was it all an incidental byproduct? Listen to the director himself in these two online video stories:

James Cameron’s Vision Featurette

CBS Interview with James Cameron: From Titanic to Avatar

The most compelling social commentary on Avatar I have so far read comes from Naomi Wolf, the American political activist, author and social critic. In an op ed essay written for Project Syndicate, she sees two revealing themes in Avatar: “the raw, guilty template of the American unconscious in the context of the ‘war on terror’ and late-stage corporate imperialism, and a critical portrayal of America – for the first time ever in a Hollywood blockbuster – from the point of view of the rest of the world.”

She adds: “In the Hollywood tradition, of course, the American hero fighting an indigenous enemy is innocent and moral, a reluctant warrior bringing democracy, or at least justice, to feral savages. In Avatar , the core themes highlight everything that has gone wrong with Americans’ view of themselves in relation to their country’s foreign policy.”

Does the box office triumph of Avatar make James Cameron one of the most effective campaigners for social justice on the planet (comparable, in some ways, to Michael Jackson having been one of the biggest environmental communicators of his time)?

And is Avatar the most expensive piece of info-tainment or edu-tainment ever made, just like the Lord of the Rings trilogy was one long (even if unintended) commercial for the breathtaking sights and sounds of New Zealand?

Certainly, mixing messages with entertainment is such a difficult and delicate art that most people who dabble in it fall between the two stools. The entertainment value of Cameron’s latest flick is not in question. Granted, it’s not as heart-breaking as Titanic, and the storyline is oh-so-predictable. But 3D and SFX magic alone can’t hold today’s audiences gripped for 160 long minutes. And if the underlying story starts movie-goers thinking and talking about many parallels between the fictional world of Pandora and our own Earth, he’s certainly getting somewhere.

As Naomi Wolf says: “Ironically, Avatar will probably do more to exhume Americans’ suppressed knowledge about the shallowness of their national mythology in the face of their oppressive presence in the rest of the world than any amount of editorializing, college courses, or even protest from outside America’s borders. But I am not complaining about this. Hollywood is that powerful. But, in the case of Avatar , the power of American filmmaking has for once been directed toward American self-knowledge rather than American escapism.”

Perhaps this wasn’t part of the script, but would the executives at 20th Century Fox care as they laugh all the way to their bank?

Message placement: Gates Foundation discovers TV soaps are good for health!

There's still time for TV to redeem itself...

There's still time for TV to redeem itself...

In the developing (or majority) world, we have been doing it for years: embedding subtle messages on health, environment, family planning or civic behaviour in popular, highly-rated entertainment shows on television.

In parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, there is a long history of collaboration among non-formal educators, advocacy groups and broadcast companies to mix entertainment with public education — a difficult balance to achieve without putting off viewers who tune in for entertainment. See, for example, my coverage of the BBC World Service Trust’s work in India.

Now, it seems, this ‘edu-tainment‘ approach is also being tried out seriously in the home of ‘soap operas’ or television drama: the United States.

A recent report in the New York Times describes how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is working with video production companies and broadcast networks to shape story lines and insert health-related messages into popular entertainment like the television shows “ER,” “Law & Order: SVU” and “Private Practice.”

Already, the foundation’s messages on HIV prevention, surgical safety and the spread of infectious diseases have found their way into these shows.

The report, written by Tim Arango and Brian Stelter, said: “Now the Gates Foundation is set to expand its involvement and spend more money on influencing popular culture through a deal with Viacom, the parent company of MTV and its sister networks VH1, Nickelodeon and BET.”

They called it “message placement”: the social or philanthropic corollary to product placement deals in which marketers pay to feature products in shows and movies. Instead of selling Coca-Cola or G.M. cars, they promote education and healthy living.

Some viewers in television-saturated US might say: it’s about time! In the past, many American companies producing entertainment content have resisted approaches from social activists to use the mass medium for public good.

In the late 1980s, when I shared some Asian experiences of mixing television drama and public education at an international science communication conference in Spain, American academics and journalists in the audience were intrigued. “But this can never happen in the United States…we keep our education and entertainment separate, and with good reason!” one of them said during question time.

Clearly, those hard attitudes have been changing slowly. As the NYT article says: “The efforts of philanthropies to influence entertainment programming is not new…. The Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on health issues, has been doing such work for a dozen years. It has worked story lines about H.I.V. and AIDS into programs on CBS and UPN (now known as the CWnetwork), including the reality show “America’s Next Top Model.”

Left, ABC’s “Private Practice,” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.” The story lines of both shows have spread the health-related messages of the Gates Foundation. Images courtesy ABC & NBC

Left, ABC’s “Private Practice,” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU.” The story lines of both shows have spread the health-related messages of the Gates Foundation. Images courtesy ABC & NBC

The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication is at the forefront of blending entertainment with public education. “There’s a lot of research that shows that when a character in a series says, ‘I’m going to be an organ donor,’ it’s effective, more effective than giving out a pamphlet,” said Martin Kaplan, director of the Centre.

The Centre has a Hollywood, Health & Society programme that provides entertainment industry professionals with accurate and timely information for health storylines. It organises meetings between health specialists and script writers for entertainment shows – not just drama, but also reality and variety shows.

“Our view is you don’t have to sacrifice entertainment value to be accurate,” Kaplan is quoted as saying in the NYT article.

That’s a view – and experience – shared by TV writers, producers and programme managers from Mexico to South Africa, and from India to the Philippines. In fact, this is an approach the Gates Foundation should consider rolling out in the majority world countries where they are already a key player in selected areas of health and development. Despite the recent spread of broadband internet, broadcast television is still the dominant mass medium – and primary source of news and entertainment – for most people in much of the developing world. That’s billions of eyeballs we’re talking about – and the cost of producing quality entertainment (even with education subtly embedded in some places) is significantly less than in the west.

In short, Gates can get a bigger bang for its bucks on the airwaves in the global South. And there’s really no need to convince TV industry gate-keepers and producers on how edu-tainment works: they’ve been at it for years, using whatever resources they can find.

Read full article: Messages With a Mission, Embedded in TV Shows, NYT 2 April 2009