This week’s topic on the relationship between the United States and Latin America, at times benevolent and at times clearly militaristic, made me reflect a lot about how stereotypes can be used as political tools by both sides. Moreover, I thought the short film The Silent War: Colombia’s War Against Yellow Fever was particularly interesting, especially given the current pandemic and the desire to have a vaccine so we can got back to our “normal lives.”
The beginning of the film sets the tone to the narration and demonstrates the asymmetry of power embedded in the relationships between the United States and the people from the countries they intervene. The narration reveals that the justification behind U.S imperialism is to fight battles around the world, “these men, soldiers of a free country, are leaving to fight on a battlefield that is the world.” By emphasizing that the soldiers come from “a free country”, it suggests that they would be bringing democratic values and liberty to other regions. Similarly, it assumes that it is the white man’s burden, the responsibility of American soldiers and the United States as a nation to intervene in other sovereign nations and help bring civilization, which in this case is represented by the yellow fever vaccine. This assumption of the white man’s burden is reflected on the images chosen to accompany the narration. We see soldiers in the desert, on the snow and in the jungle. I think it is important to consider that we cannot distinguish them individually, which adds to the fact that these men represent the U.S and a project bigger than themselves. It also becomes clear that the main motivation for the deaths of Colombians, but the American soldiers that were dying from yellow fever, “they must be kept safe against disease, against the special dangers of the jungle.” At the same time that the American soldiers are portrayed as fighters, they are also portrayed as the victims of the jungle as the wooden crosses represented those who dared to walk in the jungle. Unlike the American soldiers, walking through the jungle was a part of the daily routine of the people who lived in the region, so to say that “to ride on these trails became a sentence of death” is an exaggeration and a complete disregard to the people’s reality.
Furthermore, it is interesting how the narrator compares the dangers of the American soldiers in the jungle to that of the scientists producing the vaccine. The contrast between civilization and modernity to that of underdevelopment is also noticed by the narrator as he describes “a jungle area without railroads, without highways.” In addition, the people are portrayed, at least by the narrator, as enthusiastic recipients of American civilization in the form of the vaccine. The narrator answers his own rhetorical question, “yes, it is true, the doctors are coming.” Even the background music changes as the doctors arrive with the vaccine to a more lively, optimistic tune. In response to his American audience, the narrator has to describe the exact location of the scene “it is a dull cloudy afternoon two hundred miles north of the equator.” This may suggests that short movies similar to this one might have been common or point to the lack of knowledge and to the limited imaginary of the audience. When it came to the vaccination, the process was very mechanic and to me it resembled when cattle are branded with iron. The othering of the Colombian people is evident when the narrator refers to them by using a pronoun which omits their identity and describes their racial makeup,”these are a mixed people, descendants of Indians and the Spanish conquerors.”
I think we can best describe the genre of this short film as propaganda since it supports the U.S imperialist agenda. The narrative arc of the film is direct and follows the process the timeline of the soldiers arriving to Colombia, bringing the vaccine and moving on to other regions. The portion of the film dedicated to following the transportation of the vaccine reminded me of a pilgrimage as right before the vaccination there is a scene where a priest is organizing the population. The audience of this short film is American adults, mainly the family members of the soldiers, and the aim of the film was to portray U.S imperialism a positive enterprise and demonstrate to family members back home that the United States worries about its soldiers and citizens in the first place.
The short film also reminded me of the discussions we’ve been having in the class of sociology of development and underdevelopment. We’ve been looking at how development actors portray countries in the Global South in a very limiting way, for example by focusing on how dangerous these places are, but fail to recognize that people live in these regions and they actually have to deal with those issues in their daily lives. To this day countries in the Global South suffer from mosquito born diseases like dengue, Zika, malaria, and so many others, but they continue to live despite that.
Discussion questions 😉 :
What was your first impression of the short film? What do you think was the response of the American audience?