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In the Face of Conflict, Shows Go On

Jan 21, 2020

Much has been written about escapism – those moments when we turn to something to take our minds off things that seem scary, overwhelming, sad, or difficult. And of course, movies, stories, TV, and games are common escapist tools. And, they’re good for us if used correctly. In fact, Roger Ebert (of Siskel & Ebert) went even further, saying that our brains don’t just rejuvenate during frolics into other worlds, but that “movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

It is no wonder that people in places of active conflict turn to entertainment and storytelling for short refuges from reality. Escapism is actually good for our mental health, giving the brain short periods of time to rejuvenate before digging back into reality.

What would you do if there was a national curfew? Or imagine if there was gunfire outside your home on a regular basis: how would this impact your life? Entertainment that can be found and enjoyed within your home not only offers an essential respite – many shows also address human rights concerns that are amplified during conflict, like violence and rape.

Population Media Center (PMC) works around the world, and many of the places we work face conflict. It makes our work more difficult, but it also makes our work more important. When radio stations are being burned to the ground, it’s challenging to find ways to broadcast. It’s scary to have actors and technicians meet at the studio when there’s gunshots in the street. And it’s a combination of practicality, safety, and perseverance that guide our staff in their decisions.

PMC-Haiti’s Resident Representative Christina Guérin describes how both the risks and unique opportunities driven by Haiti’s nationwide conflict encourage the Haitian team creatively, saying “It forces us to get out of our comfort zone.”

Even as national security declined across Haiti in response to rising political unrest during fall of 2019, the broadcast schedule of Zoukoutap 3  (“To Limp”) never stalled. Staff became incredibly dedicated to the broadcast schedule because they recognized the show as a stable point for listeners during an unstable time; as people turned to the radio for news during lockdowns, routine broadcasts of Zoukoutap 3 provided a key way to connect with Haiti’s population and offer them a reprieve from the tension outside.

While it may seem counterintuitive that a show dedicated to addressing difficult issues like child slavery can be seen as a reprieve or escape, this speaks to Zoukoutap’s dedication to gripping storytelling and the ability of the audience to connect emotionally with the characters. Although difficult issues are addressed, they are presented in an interwoven set of stories that allow people to laugh and cry throughout a journey that transports them into the eyes and lives of others, as Ebert suggests.

PMC-Burundi provides another example of a steadfast PMC presence in times of turmoil. In 2015, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for what was at the time an unconstitutional third term, sparking nationwide protests and escalating violence. Recording sessions of Agashi! (“Hey! Look Again!”) had been halted for weeks, and surviving radio stations—those that did not shut down or burn down—were running out of episodes. Knowing that a broadcast gap could leave audiences feeling abandoned at an already unstable time, the actors and actresses who had not fled the country braved roadblocks and interrogations to get to the recording studio to prerecord numerous episodes for continuing broadcast. And as a result of their courage and dedication, each partner station that survived broadcast aired Agashi without interruption.

Gunfire may ring out, studios may go up in flame, but shows do go on. It’s always a decision by the local team to determine the danger and risks because their safety is paramount, but often local staff feel that the fictional show is a key component that helps their fellow countrymen and countrywomen take on a challenging reality.