Colombia, Bosnia, and a Hollywood Culture

Dr. Christina Tourino

Corey and I are sitting in a movie theater in the Usaquén neighborhood of Bogotá, Colombia.  It's the fancy, expensive kind, where you can order focaccia and a glass of wine and have it brought to your large, comfortable chair during the title sequence.  My finance has chosen a theater located in the posh, upper-class, tourist-friendly north of the city because there we can be out in relative safety, even after dark.  Too tired from a week of intense and vigilant travel to do any more "learning," we've come to see Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine.


The Moore film argues that in the United States the media creates a culture of fear, and its citizens respond by unnecessarily and dangerously arming themselves for protection.  If you've seen the film, you know that, despite whatever problems it may have, it does present you with some shocking moments.  What struck me most about the experience, however, was watching it in a theater full of Colombians.  As Corey and I gasped in surprise, many of the Colombians laughed.  I expect that if you live in a country where your bodily safety really is constantly at risk, watching an isolated farmer arm himself because he can must seem ludicrous. 

As we exited the film, a Colombian who worked at the theater was polling people for their responses.  He had a notepad and was writing down whatever people were willing to stop to tell him.  I greeted him eagerly, ready to share my ideas.  Corey, on the other hand, seemed irritated and eager to get away.  I insisted that even if Corey didn't want to do the interview, I did and would. 

Corey waited for me nervously in the lobby as I told the man what I thought.  I rejoined Corey and we left.  Then Corey explained that because we were obviously from the United States, he thought we were potentially vulnerable in the theater, given the content of the film.  He certainly didn't want to provide that man the "American" response to the film.  Not having lived in Columbia for two years as Corey had, I realized that this explanation was something I had not even considered.  As a U.S. citizen, I simply assume that it is safe to speak my mind at any time.  The whole episode drove Moore's point home in a way that couldn't have happened in the U.S.

U.S. privilege showed up through movies on my trip to the Balkans as well.  With so much cultural distance between us, one way we connected with our hosts was through discussion of U.S. movies.  We started with a simple exchange of likes and dislikes, already a strange reminder that they "unwind" to cultural products not their own.  But those we interviewed also resorted to films in order to explain their own cultural phenomena to us.  "It's like The Matrix," they would say in their attempts to describe living under Serbian control.

I know I was skimming the cultural surface, given my lack of language skills, the brevity of my trip, and my outsider status.  That said, I didn't get the impression that Bosnians referenced Hollywood movies only because they thought these would help us understand their experiences more easily.  Instead, it seemed as though even the metaphors they chose to describe themselves to themselves sometimes came from Hollywood because that was what was most available to them. 

Our driver, who had fought on the front lines of the Bosnian resistance in Sarajevo, called himself Rambo, a nickname given to him by those he fought with a decade ago.  He liked the nickname, probably because the Stallone character is smart, resourceful, independent, and capable of astonishing destruction and probably also because of the cache it endows.  He asked us to call him Rambo as well, but using that name felt both strange and sad every time it came out of my mouth.  For me, it recalled only a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder and a dangerously patriotic madman.