When Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo used popular references to box-office hit Avengers: Infinity War and award-winning television series Game of Thrones in recent international speeches, the public response was divided between praise and criticism.
Nevertheless, such references remind international relations scholars of how films can be used to understand concepts and theories in their field.
The use of films in international relations
Films have contributed to explaining historical events explicitly. The documentary genre has been used for this purpose. It can provide information about how things work in international politics, diplomacy and foreign policy-making. An example is The Fog of War, a documentary about former US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and his opinions on international security.
Fictions such as Hotel Rwanda, a story about a hotelier who hides refugees in his hotel to save them from genocide, are also used to explain issues in international relations.
Films can also be used to teach cultures in international relations. One example is Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, a film about Turkish soldiers detained by Americans in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The film reflects Turkey’s cultural interpretation of the US invasion.
Films are also used to explain theories in international relations. International relations professor and filmmaker Cynthia Weber highlights popular films with stories that construct international relations perspectives.
One of the examples is Lord of the Flies, a film about a boy choir group isolated on an island where they struggle to survive without adult presence. This film reflects realist theories. Based on the notion that humans are conflictual, realism is the dominant perspective in international relations, which views states’ main aim as being to seek power.
Meanwhile, the film Independence Day portrays the idealist view of international society where humans cooperate to fight a common enemy.
By learning the construction of stories in the films, students can also learn that these perspectives are constructed too and depend on how events are told.
Film studies in international relations
The objects of the study of international relations cannot be confined in a laboratory to be observed nor to be directly questioned.
So films provide visuals to help us understand and see the roles of the actors behind international affairs. Interactions between states, organisations and individuals throughout the world are not always concretely accessible in everyday life.
The use of films in international relations studies has been developing fast since the late 1990s. This possibly happened due to the advancement of digital film technology that increased people’s access to recorded movies. Professor in international relations Robert Gregg wrote a book discussing a list of movies that can be used as reference for teaching international relations.
Weber’s textbook International Relations Theory: A Critical Introduction, first published in 2001, introduces international relations theories in an innovative way by using popular films to explain each theory.
Since then, scholars in the field have promoted the use of movies to teach international relations.
The risks and benefits
Studies have found that using films in international relations studies is not without risk.
Films are commercial media and are filled with drama and emotional aspects, which might lead students to treat the films as mere entertainment. Such oversimplification may reduce students’ attention to the seriousness and complexities of the issues to be discussed.
However, films are still useful to make sense of international affairs. It is easier, for example, to recall a scene from the battlefield in The Lord of the Rings than a textbook explanation of how international society works.
Therefore, it is understandable that President Jokowi uses Avengers and Game of Thrones references to appeal to international audiences as well as young voters at home as he seeks re-election in 2019.
Jokowi compared the state of the world’s economy to Marvel’s Infinity War during the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) on ASEAN. He likened the main villain, Thanos, to countries waging trade wars with their protectionist policies.
Then, during the recent plenary session at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank annual meeting, Jokowi quoted a famous line from Game of Thrones, “winter is coming”, to describe global economic uncertainty triggered by weak coordination and cooperation from developed countries.
World leaders and diplomats have praised Jokowi’s unique style and his powerful philosophical messages about the need for a better world in a language that resonates visually.
The speech is also said to have attracted millennials’ interest to global economy issues. Through his speech, Jokowi gave us visuals to comprehend the state of the world we live in now. The images will stay in our mind as easy recollections of international affairs.
As a result, we may never watch films the same way again.