Friday, March 20, 2009
¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall!
Last night was the gala opening of the City of Sydney's Living in Harmony Festival. Running from 19 March to 30 April, Sydney is "saying no to racism" (or at least that's what the brochure states). Harmony Day is on March 21, and I now have a badge encouraging me to:
H onour our tradition of a fair go
A ppreciate the benefits of our cultural diversity
R espect each other
M ark the day with a celebration of
O ur successes as a vibrant, cohesive, inclusive
N ation and wear this badge, along with
Y our fellow Australians to show that
And here I thought acrostic poetry was meant for the school room!
I got a guernsey to this group love gala because I'm interning with the Spanish Film Festival, who co-presented the evening. The topic was "Building Bridges: Overcoming Stereotypes" and to that end, the 1953 Spanish classic ¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall! was a rather bold choice.
It is the story of a rural Andalusian town, who spruces itself up for a visit from the Americans, in the hope of benefiting from the Marshall Plan. By 'spruce' I actually mean entirely transform, for the town refashions itself and its inhabitants into the quintessential Spanish cliche: complete with traditional Andalusian costumes, flamenco dancers, Spanish guitarists and quaint - albeit totally fake - little cottages.
Much of the comedy comes from the fact that this Andalusian town must be taught 'their' customs. The villagers also decide that the Americans will give them one gift each, so they make a list to streamline the process for Santa. The manager of the visiting flamenco dancer is hired to produce his farce; he's qualified because he's been to Boston.
This idea of producing culture instantly reminded me of the Olympic Games. We Australians can easily recall the flying Nicky Webster or giant thong (flip flop) bearing Kylie Minogue at the closing ceremony. This is how we chose to portray ourselves to the world. Suddenly flamenco dancers don't look too bad.
More intriguingly, however, are the stereotypes the Spaniards dream up (literally) about their American counterparts. The film quite bluntly portrays the flip side to the cuddly and comic stereotypes with a dream sequence featuring a villager being hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Commission by members of the KKK. An audience member informed us that this scene caused the film to be banned in the US, though I've been unable to find anything that confirms this.
I say the film was a bold choice for opening night because the satire certainly comes with a bite. Then again, perhaps humour is a powerful way to challenge stereotypes. I won't say 'overcome' because I don't think that's possible, or even necessary. The negative connotations associated with the term 'stereotype' seem to overshadow the more benign and dare I say natural human tendency to recognise patterns and groups. Of course we must guard against such groupings being used for prejudicial or racist purposes, but surely it is the stereotype that we present and celebrate at events like the Olympic Games? Perhaps we need to find a more useful, or at least less loaded term.
As you can see, I came away from the evening thoughtful, not just full of tapas and sangria! In welcoming Mr. Marshall, it appears we've also held open the door to some challenging ideas about the way we perceive our own culture.