Thursday, November 11, 2010

Democracy (1945) -- An Educational Film

Here's another of those just-post-WWII educational films from Britannica. In some respects, as a commenter notes at, it has aged quite well. It is simplistic, of course, but that's to be expected in a film designed to be an introduction for school-age children. I do, however, have a few immediate observations about the rhetoric of the film.

First, the film: Now, my -- ahem -- observations:

  1. It is amusing to note their use of the "anonymous expert" to introduce the main portion of the movie (starting at 0:31, "Let's ask this man...").  They make a big deal about newspapers revealing their sources; the same principle does not seem to apply to educational films.  The effect is, I think, to locate what they are saying in a kind of nether-world of untethered authority: "This is the way it is, kids.  These are general points we are making so we are stripping them of all specificity."  They go on to emphasize that Anonymous has made a scholarly study of Democracy, implying that what he says is the result of systematic and impartial inquiry rather than gut-level opinionating (0:51, "I'll tell you one thing:  Students of society have been reporting their observations and analyses for a good many centuries.").  This point is reinforced by citing (but not actually detailing) the differences of opinions thinkers have had about Democracy over the millenia...and then suggesting that the film will distill "what everybody agrees on" and what "many students agree" on.
  2. In a previous post about another film in this series (Despotism) I remarked upon the absence of black faces when the film treated lynch mobs.  Here, starting at position 1:45, we do get a glimpse of a black man as they introduce the topic of Shared Respect.  It is only a glimpse, mind you...wouldn't want to overdo it!
  3. Just after we see that black man we enter into a full-frontal "visual stereotypes on parade" segement in which social differences are illustrated.  Call Central Casting! Differences in wealth are rapidly conveyed in a shot opposing a (to me, unidentifiably) ethnic man with open shirt-collar talking to a white-haired WASP-type man in suit and tie.  The pair that are supposed to embody different religions simply baffle me...what religious differences are supposed to be depicted here?  Is this naivete on my part?  Are they relying on some visual code that is specific to that period, of which I am ignorant?  Beats me...  Finally, we get a color-contrasted pair.  I almost didn't notice though, because I was staring at the woman's hat...
  4. We move into a "everyone making their own contribution to the community" segment in which a female doctor is portrayed (2:09, "healing its sick")...and there is nudity!  What interests me more, however, is that the "collecting its garbage" segment features black people, something I don't believe you saw much of in theatrical movies of the period.
  5. Onwards, into a brief depiction of Asian-American chemists (2:27).  We might consider this something of a stereotype these days, of course, but right after WWII, with the memories of the Pacific Theater and of Nisei camps fresh in people's memories, I don't think that it is obnoxious.
  6. The "sharing of power" portion of the film (2:55) is telling.  The voting scene depicts diversity strictly in socio-economic terms; everyone is white...and male.  Even the socioeconomic diversity shown is constrained:  poor people are not depicted (unless farmers carried the association of poverty, in those days).  While expounding on "office-holders...drawn from representative groups in society" the film depicts "men from the farms, men from the law courts, men from the stores, men from the factories".  All white, of course, and women need not apply.
  7. The film goes on to enumerate two important "conditions for democracy", namely "economic balance" and "enlightenment".  By "economic balance" they mean a large middle-class.  They cite James Madison warning that "extremes of riches and poverty set group against group".  Aren't they quaint!  Isn't that just adorably old-fashioned?
  8. Starting at 6:53 we launch into the discussion of enlightenment.  Interestingly, there is a passing reference to the part played by comics(!) in a fluorishing democracy (7:04).  Someon should let Jon Stewart know about this part of the film -- especially the discussion of newspapers (up to about 8:50)
  9. "If a community works to balance its economy and if it works to enlighten its citizens -- such a community can work to achieve shared respect and it can achieve shared power.  By working hard at it the citizens of any community can achieve...democracy".  These old films are simply hilarious.


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