Ban Ki goes to Hollywood
On the eve of the Oscars, Korean secretary-general flies in to Los Angeles with plea for studios to showcase UN's real-life heroes. Guy Adams reports
Friday 05 March 2010
The next time you see an action hero save the world and get the girl, he may very well be wearing a blue helmet. That, at least, is the latest cunning plan from the United Nations, which is hoping to enlist the film industry's assistance in helping to polish its public image.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN's secretary-general, quietly visited Hollywood this Oscar week, devoting an entire day to lobbying hundreds of the world's most influential actors, directors, and film producers about the potential benefits of storylines that portray his organisation in a positive light.
Mr Ban's "Global Creative Forum," to use its official name, was held at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and attended by Anne Hathaway, Demi Moore, Mira Sorvino, Sean Penn, Samuel L Jackson, director Jason Reitman, and such notable "suits" as the Universal Studios president, Ron Meyer.
"I'm here to talk to the creative community, Hollywood, about how they could help the United Nations," explained its host. "I want to work with Hollywood, to use its technology and great reach to spread the word about peace, [international] development, human rights and empowering women and girls."
Colleagues of the UN secretary-general say he's grown weary of the organisation being portrayed as a bumbling, New-York-based bureaucracy, and hopes to persuade film-makers to focus on the heroic stories behind its humanitarian work in countries such as Haiti, and peacekeeping missions in other global trouble spots.
"I really want to have the UN message coursing continually, and spreading out continuously to the whole world," he said. "The creative community, through [TV] and movies, can reach millions and millions of people at once, repeatedly, and then 10 and 20 years after a film's been made, the messages can be constant."
Mr Ban invited film-makers to consider using UN property as locations for projects that "change the attitudes and minds of people" about touchstone international issues such as climate change, eliminating poverty and preventing the spread of disease.
It has not always been so easy. In the 1950's Alfred Hitchcock was famously prevented from shooting a key scene in "North by Northwest" at the UN. Hollywood cameras were banned from its HQ right up to 2005, when Sydney Pollack succeeded, after endless lobbying, in getting permission to shoot the Nicole Kidman film The Interpreter there.
Warming to that theme in a Q&A session with Michael Douglas that kicked off the event, Mr Ban told delegates that the UN's activities were "sometimes more dramatic than Hollywood movies," and cited The Constant Gardener as a film that covered humanitarian and peacekeeping work in a compelling fashion.
To those who have sneered at his monochrome public image, the Korean-born secretary-general also made a shock admission: a life-long obsession with cowboy movies, which he likes for their "obvious difference between good and evil."
Mr Ban even likened his role to that of a sheriff hoping to maintain law and order. And he courted Mr Douglas by announcing that his film The American President, along with Spartacus, which starred the actor's father, Kirk, were among his favourite films.
The media was not invited to the conference, which was attended by 400 delegates, so that guests could talk freely. The press was also absent from a dinner for 300 industry figures hosted by Bill Clinton at a private house in the Hollywood hills.
Reports did, however, begin to emerge in the trade press this week, where it was revealed that Mr Ban spent part of the day in private meetings with Ms Hathaway, Mr Penn, Ms Moore and Maria Bello. The event's organiser, Eric Falt, is the director of the UN's Information Centre, which is dedicated to changing public perceptions of the organisation. He said proceedings were part of a long-running project, the Creative Community Outreach Initiative, to court the entertainment industry.
"We launched it a year ago, and the idea is to use pop culture to highlight issues that are important to the UN, but may be a little abstract for people to understand," he said. "If you make a film that, say, explores a topic like female trafficking, then you can make a huge difference to public appreciation of something that previously only academics or governments really knew about."
The project first made headlines last year, when Mr Falt persuaded the makers and stars of Battlestar Galactica to headline a conference discussing international diplomacy and human rights – key themes of the science-fiction programme – at UN headquarters with Whoopi Goldberg.
Since then, UN property, previously off-limits to all but the most dogged directors, has been used as a location for shows such as Law & Order and Ugly Betty, while the UN has been given a key role in the new season of 24.
"We also want to get film-makers to think about UN heroes," said Mr Falt. "We do have them out there, we really do, and they deserve to get attention. In the past we have maybe been a little hesitant about talking about this, and there has been a tendency to just look at the UN through the prism of this bureaucracy in New York."
To critics who might argue that his interest in the mass-media smacks of propaganda, Mr Falt said he was "not asking for creative control" in return for UN co-operation, citing a new film by Hotel Rwanda director Terry George.
Mr George, whose most famous film was scathing of UN inaction during the Rwandan civil war, is now making a film about Sergio Vieira de Mello, the Brazilian diplomat killed in a bombing in Iraq in 2003.
In a discussion at Monday's event, Mr George said his film would also be critical of some aspects of UN bureaucracy, but advised directors not to demonise the organisation: "For the lack of a bad guy, it's easy to turn to the monolith of the UN," he said.
United artists: The UN on screen
The first, and so far only, feature film made at UN headquarters was Sydney Pollack's The Interpreter, starring Nicole Kidman, and released in 2005. In the last year, though, the organisation has begun courting the producers of television series and major Hollywood movies. Recent successes include...
In an effort to lend gravitas to the fictional style magazine she edits, Betty spent the first episode of the latest season staging a fashion shoot at the UN headquarters in Manhattan. She got models to wear mosquito nets as part of a bizarre scheme to highlight a fictional fundraising appeal by using a malaria prevention. The show was shot on location last August.
Law & Order
No fewer than 200 members of the cast and crew of NBC's Law and Order: Special Victims Unit descended on the organisation's New York offices last year to film scenes from an episode called "Hell", which dealt with issues involving child soldiers and refugees.
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Sergio Vieira de Mello
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