Troubling the National Brand and Voicing Hidden Histories: Historical Drama as a tool for International Development and Community Empowerment


The aim of this pilot project is to support specific marginalised communities in Brazil, India and South Africa to challenge the way these nations present themselves to the world via 'nation branding' and other 'soft power' initiatives. In so doing, the project seeks to raise awareness nationally and internationally of these communities' precarious place in society and to support them in campaigning to effect change in their lives.

The particular focus of the project will be on the privileged place historical dramas made for the large and small screen frequently have in 'nation-branding' exercises. From the instrumentalisation of Downton Abbey within public diplomacy initiatives in the UK to the role played by the Bollywood historical epic Jodhaa Akbar (Ashutosh Gowariker, 2008) in campaigns to attract investment from non-resident Indians, historical dramas are frequently considered to be excellent vehicles for the international projection of the nation, allowing elites to communicate effectively the key messages in the 'national strategic narrative' that are considered to be central to the leverage of soft power.

Our project will look at the role such dramas play in three ODA recipient countries that are considered by many commentators to be central to the broader development of the 'global South'. Although all are members of the BRICS grouping, all are at very different stages in their development. All have complex relationships to their colonial pasts and, in each case, this past plays a distinctive role in the present-day construction of the nation.

The project will begin with an investigation of how all three nations use their history as an important asset within their 'soft power' strategies, focussing in particular on the instrumentalisation of film in each country.  The project will then work with international development agencies to explore how these national narratives are experienced by some of the most marginalised groups within these societies.

In South Africa, we will work with the Bishop Simeon Trust to support groups of 'undocumented children' to challenge the national story of 'transition'. In India we will work with Budhan Theatre/Nomad Films and with the 'Denotified Tribes Rights Action Group' (DNT RAG) to explore the historical predicament of these ex-'Criminal Tribe' communities in the cities of western India. In Brazil, we will work with Plan International and young people from Codó (Maranhão), one of Brazil's surviving quilombos or 'maroon communities'.

Through a process of co-production we will make a series of video responses by these groups to the way their nations' histories are presented to the world. The purpose of the videos will be to support these groups to reflect upon their place in society, allowing them to contextualize their struggles globally by learning from the experience of our other case studies, and to develop awareness-raising campaigns. 

In the process, this project responds to several strands in this call, supporting marginalized communities to voice 'hidden histories' that 'have been absent from the representation of local and national stories'. It will also explore 'the potential of creative practice as a tool for international development and intercultural communication'. However, most significantly it will engage 'with questions of silence, voicelessness and amnesia', in order to challenge 'voice poverty' within, and the 'social exclusion' of, the three communities with which we will be working. In the process the project will also contribute to the development of both Translating Cultures and Care for the Future, providing opportunities for 'reflection on the vehicles of translation' (narratives, performances and other cultural artefacts) and intercultural exchange. In addition, it will work with our external partners to explore the way historical narratives can be used to effect change in the lives of vulnerable communities.

Project website