Rebels overrun a village in Eastern Congo killing the men, kidnapping the youth. Women are raped. Resistance means torture. The bloodshed is based on politics, ethnicity, or religion. Or maybe it’s just based on greed. Too many times we’ve watched these scenes in movies based on ‘fact’. Few films show the multifaceted lives of sub-Saharan Africans. Few films or TV series are ‘feel good.’ It leaves many Westerners with impression that an entire continent is a basket case. It is infuriating for Africans and others including peace builders who appreciate that life is too complex for oversimplified stories.
However, if films don’t depict some violence, these stories lack an element of truth. But showing too much violence means we reinforce what people in these communities already know too well. Communication experts call this ‘cultivation’ theory https://masscommtheory.com/theory-overviews/cultivation-theory/ because the images cultivate the viewer’s expectations. And let’s face it: viewers expect films set in Africa to be violent. Unfortunately, these powerful screen images repeated over and over deliver unspoken messages that to live in Africa— and I mean the entire continent — is to live in bloody chaos. Full stop.
WHEN DO VIOLENT IMAGES CROSS THE LINE?
If authenticity is important, how should filmmakers handle conflict? Stories that depict relatable characters struggling to overcome differences, open up the hearts and minds of people who live in countries impacted by protracted conflict. It is possible for people to come together in spite of overwhelming odds and episodic drama is effective as a leveraging tool. The purpose is to show people the possibilities. But how much violence should we portray along the way? How much is too much? What is the appropriate balance between realism and aspiration?
We create episodic series for the local audiences, not for Westerners. Too much violence and we risk reinforcing stereotyping of the ‘other’ based on religion, ethnicity and the like. It doesn’t mean there will always be happy endings. People who live in protracted conflicts cannot become friends by the end of a 30 minute episode. But if the stories we create don’t show a way out, if they are not hopeful, we risk doing harm.