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Cinema & Cultural Diversity - Ivor Benjamin, Beijing 2009

Greeting & Thanks

Honoured hosts, friends and colleagues of the Chinese Film Association, on behalf of the World Cinema Alliance and the Directors Guild of Great Britain I want to say how marvellous it is to be here in China, a country I have longed to visit since I was a boy, and to thank you most sincerely for your invitation to speak today.

I am Ivor Benjamin, Chairman of the Directors Guild of Great Britain and a Trustee of our charity the Directors Guild Trust. My speech will discuss the international move towards supporting cultural diversity, and in particular how we see this affecting international cinema.

For those of us who may be very familiar with the phrase “cultural diversity” and its application through the UNESCO Declaration and Convention, please forgive me for a brief introduction to the subject to remind us once more of the main elements.


How can we define “cultural diversity”?

In international terms, Cultural diversity refers not to culture itself - but to the many ways in which the cultures of social groups and societies find their expression. From diverse forms of expression and art taken by individuals and groups with varying styles, perceptions, values and beliefs, over time and space there grows the uniqueness and plurality of our identities and the cultural expressions as the peoples and societies of our planet.

So, Cultural diversity exists through the many and varied ways in which the cultural heritage of humankind is protected, augmented and transmitted to future generations.

But Cultural diversity also exists through the variety of cultural expressions which are borne by cultural goods and services, in all parts of the world at any given time, and through many and diverse modes of production, dissemination, distribution and consumption. And cinema is both a major means of cultural expression and of cultural goods.

We could talk generally about cultural diversity for days – but the development of the international treaty that embraces it will help focus clearly on its impact.

The UNESCO Declaration on Cultural Diversity

How has cultural diversity taken its place on the world stage?
The UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity puts Culture at the heart of international relations by protecting, promoting and celebrating the wealth of different art, heritage and culture that exists in the world.

The Convention was born from the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, adopted by UNESCO's governing body, the General Conference of the United Nations in Paris, November 2nd, 2001. The Declaration is a text that the then Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura hoped could:
"… one day acquire as much force as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

He said:
“The Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity reaffirms our conviction that intercultural dialogue is the best guarantee of peace, thus categorically rejecting the idea that conflicts between cultures and civilizations are inevitable. This is the first time the international community has endowed itself with such a comprehensive standard-setting instrument, elevating cultural diversity to the rank of 'common heritage of humanity - as necessary for the human race as bio-diversity in the natural realm' - and makes its protection an ethical imperative, inseparable from respect for human dignity. It is a determining instrument to humanise globalization and counts among the basic texts of new ethics UNESCO is advocating at the beginning of the 21st century."

UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions

Mr Matsuura’s dream came to pass less than four years later, when on 20 October 2005, the 33rd UNESCO General Conference adopted by a majority of 148 votes to two the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

The Convention, a product of years of intensive negotiation, was sponsored by both Canada and France and received widespread support:  148 countries immediately voted in favour.  Only the United States and Israel voted against, and Australia, Honduras, Liberia and Nicaragua abstained.

By 2006, over 30 countries and the European Union had ratified the Convention, passing it into international law. China signed shortly after, in 2007. By today, a total of 103 countries have signed the convention; including, this year, both Nicaragua and Australia.

I’m sure many of us will know these already; the major objectives of the Convention, to which almost all world governments have agreed, are:

1) the recognition of the dual  nature of cultural expressions as objects of trade and as artefacts of cultural value; and

2) the recognition of the sovereign right of governments to formulate and implement cultural policies and measures for the protection and promotion of cultural diversity.

The convention intends to achieve these objectives by:

•    protecting and promoting diversity of cultural expressions;

•    providing opportunities for the creation, production, dissemination, distribution and enjoyment of domestic cultural activities, goods and services, including provisions relating to language used for such activities, goods and services;

•    providing public financial assistance;

•    establishing and supporting public institutions, as appropriate;

•    enhancing diversity of the media, including though public broadcasting; and

•    nurturing and supporting artists and others involved in the creation of cultural expressions.

The clearly ambitious role assigned to the Convention of Cultural Diversity is to fill a clear and existing gap in public international law for cultural objectives and to serve as a cultural counterbalance to the World Trade Organization in future conflicts between trade and culture.

Opponents have criticized the Convention as an instrument of disguised protectionism and claimed that it violates freedom of expression and information. A more extreme nationalist viewpoint is that the Convention will “dilute national culture” and unfairly favour minorities. The World Cinema Alliance repudiates both viewpoints.

The adoption of the new Convention is of the utmost significance with a view to potential conflicts between trade and culture. Although the Convention does not impose enforceable responsibilities on the Contracting Parties, it may be seen as a first step towards the achievement of a more coherent international legal order, where not only economic but also other societal values, such as cultural diversity, are taken seriously.
There is an opportunity for the Convention to be used as a point of reference when boundaries between trade and culture are discussed in future negotiations - or in dispute settlement procedures.

However, this potential is not a given. It needs to be developed and strengthened, both by affirmative action of the Convention Parties and within the structure of the World Trade Organisation so it can play its intended role as a global balancing force in matters of artistic and cultural expressions. That the USA is still missing from the Convention is a matter of concern for all other countries; though whether or not the USA can stay apart from the Convention for very long is debatable.

Cultural Diversity and Film

It is a simple truth that film has become the international meta-language for drama. For over a century, film has expanded in both audience and reach, moving from local performance on celluloid to rapid global dissemination by digital transmissions – a progress which has yet to play out.

At its heart, drama is the endless, fascinating modelling and rehearsal of human behaviour. As children, we play at being adults. Then, as adults, we are too busy to play – so we pay the players to play the play. At first this happened in the theatre and then we discovered how to record the play on film so we can show it again and again – and in doing so we create a new dramatic language that uses the photographic image in a way the theatre cannot. But at its heart, the cinema still speaks to our need to model the world – and though cultures may differ and may change, this need lives on in every place and in every generation. And today, with global film distribution, we share each others cinematic culture and drama in a way we have never done before – we share it both as “objects of trade and as artefacts of cultural value”.

A week ago, I bought my family’s first Blu-Ray disk. My eleven-year old son Joe decided what it would be.
It was “Yīngxióng” – “Hero” by Zhang Yimou.

Europe’s embrace of cultural diversity

The European Union (EU) is the only pan-national organisation to sign the UNESCO Convention, and in doing so has brought pressure to bear on all its member countries to do so. Across Europe, nearly 6 million people are employed in creative and cultural endeavours, producing a turnover of 654 billion euros - 2.6% of the EU GDP (gross domestic product). In the UK, the figure is higher - British cultural and creative industries make up 9 percent of the UK’s GDP and the creative industries are the fastest growing aspect of the economy. By comparison, the British financial services sector contributes 13.5 percent GDP and it is thought the cultural and creative industries will soon eclipse financial services.

As a result of the Convention, the EU is in a slow process of moving from being essentially a trade organisation to a cross-cultural organisation; one that is still finding its own identity through the diverse multiplicity of cultural identities of its member nations – stretching from the snows of Scandinavia to the olive groves of Greece.

Eighteen months ago, the European Union created a research Platform on Culture, engaging over 40 cultural, arts and creative industry organisations - including World Cinema Alliance Europe - to examine a range of practical issues and support mechanisms for cultural diversity within and between member nations. Over 12 months, five Working Groups met regularly to examine: Legal environments, the role of SME (small-to-medium-sized enterprises), the circulation of artists, issues of cultural exchange and export, and the creative industries. Solutions range from increased local and cross-border project funding, through proposed changes in the application of cross-border visas and changes in tax and legislation, to the education of government at all levels in the application of and support for cultural diversity. More information on the findings of these working groups is available from the Alliance.

In September I attended the 2009 Culture Forum in Brussels, Belgium, a conference of over 1200 delegates from stakeholder organisations, governments and arts organisations, who came together to examine the progress of the Union’s support for and implementation of the Convention. Several EU countries have created formal coalitions in support of the Convention and these two were represented at the convention; certainly in the UK we have found it to be of great value to bring together the wide range of stakeholders, schools, colleges and universities, local government, trade unions and trade and professional bodies, charities and civil society. But there is still hesitation in the financial, trade and government elements of the EU and its member countries in moving forward to the practical implementation of the Convention. The World Cinema Alliance is absolutely determined that this historically important treaty is fully supported by all signatories, in Europe and beyond.

Despite the view from the outside world, to Europeans there is no one European culture or identity - it will grow, over time. At the 2009 European Culture Forum, Wim Wenders, the artistic director of the European Film Academy, said:

“Culture is more than just decoration, the icing on the cake. We all have shared history and shared genes – and shared dreams. Culture is a driving force and talent, a most precious capital and our shared property. It is the yeast, the leavening for all elements of our lives; it infiltrates everything we do and is integral to all our policies. Cinema has become the most powerful world language – the “lingua franca” of our planet, where mental ability is transported by film. Regional roots are the foundation of European cinema – and diversity will be our biggest asset.”

Audiences, languages and the spread of interest in other cultures

Of course, if the language of film is to be global, then the languages in which it speaks must cross borders too, and the challenge of translating both language and culture across borders is recognised by and built into the Convention.

Most audiences want to understand film in their own language – and whilst literacy remains low in many countries, subtitles are an inefficient answer. For there to be a world cinema, there does not have to be a world language - but there must be the support to provide both subtitling and dubbing not only for commercial cinema, but for grass-roots local films from each others countries - and support for film distribution that does not rely entirely on profit.

The UK is a multicultural state. There are not only four separate nations – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but also a hugely diverse range of British people whose origins span the whole world. For example, 0.75% of the UK population is of Chinese and South-East Asian origin – about half-a-million people. Making films for local audiences will increasingly come to mean making films for a globally-distributed audience, not just of our own citizens spread in diasporas to other countries, but to those audiences who want to share and celebrate the film of other countries and cultures, secure in the knowledge that this can only be an enriching experience.

The Convention requires the British government to actively support minority cultures within their nations as well as apparently dominant national culture, as well as encouraging the free exchange of cultural products and cultural voices from abroad. And, to be fair, I believe we are rather good at doing this – the British are well known for embracing diversity and not seeing alternative viewpoints as a threat to political stability.

However, the Convention also requires, along with all other forms of artistic and cultural expressions, support for cinema and television, potentially the most powerful engines of cultural dissemination. But until now, the British government’s financial support has been for the British film industry - they have yet to commit fully to the idea of supporting film as art, and not just as trade. Of course, the Convention does validate the existence of cinema-funding cultural bodies like the UK Film Council and it does encourage the kind of local tax-break systems mentioned by my colleague John Crome in his speech on UK cinema – but, at the same time, Hollywood can and does make full use of such tax breaks and benefits to produce blockbuster films like James Bond and Harry Potter in the UK, whilst putting back only the production costs and the kudos – not the profit.

Cultural diversity is not just about protecting and preserving our cultures – it is about promoting them, sharing them, comparing and contrasting them with the cultures of other nations and ultimately about allowing them to change, develop and mature. 

The challenge of global hegemony and Hollywood – development v sustainability

It is true that in countries like Britain, Spain, France and Germany, we are lucky - we have large national and international markets into which we can sell our content - even though our output is tiny in comparison with the USA. China too is a vast and wealthy country with loyal audiences desirous of their own local content – but wherever we find them, our audiences are hungry for quality content. This is a 21st century dilemma: It is clear that the over-presentation of foreign cultural goods reduces the space and opportunity for local cultural expression and can increases the cost of local film. It is equally the case that audience support is strong for locally-made film, which is almost always more popular than imports. So this balance between local and international cinema is also a balance between local and multinational culture.

Many smaller, poorer countries, both inside and beyond Europe, do not have the luxury of shared languages or huge audiences and there is tremendous pressure on their ability to support their local film culture. We should encourage nations’ legitimate support for their cultural activities as a counterbalance to unfair trade agreements and the crowding of their local film markets. This is what the Convention is for – it was designed to resist a global hegemony – and though the USA are not yet a signatory, in time, I believe, they will also sign.

The convention creates some difficult duties; we know from experience in the UK that it is not easy or cheap to reflect all the minority cultures within a nation or to support wider access to the cultures of other nations. But we must learn to encourage, support and promote world cultures equally – or risk losing them, just as we are losing our rainforests. And it is to international legal mechanisms like the Convention for Cultural Diversity that we must turn.


Global cultural diversity is like global bio-diversity. We will never know what vital and wonderful animals, insects, plants or trees we will lose as we destroy natural habitats like our rainforests. And so we will never know what extraordinary opportunities for medicines or for study we will lose with them.

The same is true with culture – with cinema – which lives, breathes, grows and changes through the endeavours of each generation of artists and practitioners.

Film changes us just as much as we change film; technological advances change the way we tell stories, but not the stories we tell – stories that confirm us, celebrate us and challenge us to become better human beings.

What we seek is an equitable platform on which all the peoples of the world can express their cultures equally. By sharing our cultures, by examining our past and by challenging our present, by integrating each others world views and seeing the world through each others eyes, by embracing the true meaning of “cultural diversity”, we will shape a better future for our children.

Thank you.
Ivor Benjamin,
Beijing, November 2009

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