When United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was foreign minister of South Korea from 2004 through 2006, he experienced directly how entertainment can shape popular perceptions, when not one but two TV networks began airing miniseries about the lives of Korean diplomats.
Although the series romanticized diplomat life with requisite dashes of love and conflict, the net effect for the foreign ministry was a burnished public image. "Good storytelling is a very strong tool to change the attitudes and minds of people," Ban recalled in an interview.
Ban said that's what was on his mind this week as he led a veritable platoon of top U.N. officials, including the heads of UNICEF and the World Health Organization, on a mission to Hollywood to build relationships with the entertainment community and encourage film and television story lines about issues high on the U.N. agenda, such as climate change and violence against women.
"I'm here to talk to the creative community -- Hollywood -- about how they could help the United Nations' work," he said."I've been meeting presidents and prime ministers, and leaders of the business communities, but my audience has always been very limited. If a journalist picks up what I have said, that's all I can do, but I really want to have the U.N. message coursing continually, and spreading out continuously to the whole world. The creative community, through [TV] and movies, can reach millions and millions of people at once, repeatedly, and then 10 and 20 years after a film's been made, the messages can be constant."
Ban was the keynote speaker at a day-long series of panels Tuesday at the Hammer Museum that culminated with a private dinner headlined by President Clinton and attended by industry figures including Universal Studios President Ron Meyer, directors Jason Reitman and Ed Zwick, and actors Kiefer Sutherland and Samuel L. Jackson. In between public events, Ban held private meetings with Anne Hathaway, Maria Bello, Sean Penn and Demi Moore, who came to discuss their particular political passions. Those at the forum were repeatedly reminded of the U.N.'s programs in peacekeeping, health, feeding the hungry and environmental protection.
On one of the panels, filmmaker Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda") pointed out that there are essentially two U.N.s -- one comprising the hundreds of thousands of workers on the ground in war-torn and impoverished countries, and the "monolith in New York." George is working on a biopic about Sergio Vieira de Mello, the chief of the U.N. mission to Iraq who was killed by a terrorist bomb in 2003.
George also acknowledged, and lamented, that movies with serious themes aimed at adult audiences are not high on most studio agendas right now. "We work in the most powerful medium in the world. We must use it not just to promote the latest toy," he said. He joked that it might be easier to raise money for a film on the U.N. if it featured a shot of the iconic headquarters building standing on two legs and crossing the East River. "Then I'd have $200 million in my pocket by tomorrow."
Eric Falt, director of the U.N. Outreach division, said the organization could provide information and resources but not dictate plot lines. "It's not for me to tell you how to do your job. We wouldn't ask for creative control. That's not our role," he said. Already, the United Nations has provided assistance to the makers of "Ugly Betty" and "Law & Order: SVU" for story lines about malaria prevention and child soldiers.
Entrepreneur William J. Rouhana, a U.N. supporter who chaired the conference, predicted there will be more events with industry officials and unions, and said the U.N. could eventually set up a film office in Los Angeles.
"There will be an advisory council. There will be more events in Los Angeles. We'll meet with the WGA and the other guilds, and bring people in from the field to tell their stories," Rouhana said. "We're going to try to set up a substantive center here." Ban, meanwhile, praised what he called the unsung heroes of the U.N. worthy of the Hollywood treatment, citing two security guards, armed only with pistols, who held off a Taliban attack on a U.N. guest house in Afghanistan while 30 staffers escaped.
"They defended the house for about an hour, and during that time, most of our staff was able to run for safety," he said. "The two security guards were killed when all their ammunition was spent. That was tragic. Our challenges are real. It's not fiction. Movie actors and actresses may be killed in a movie, but they're alive when the movie is over. In our case, this is real life and death."