Two shores which cannot see eye to eye

Article published on Oct. 20, 2003
community published
Article published on Oct. 20, 2003

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The audio-visual medium is a major vector of cultural exchange and the Mediterranean a mosaic of cultures, and yet cultural images all too rarely make the sea crossing. How can we open up our horizons and our perceptions?

In the cultural sphere the Barcelona process highlighted those initiatives seeking to give impetus to "significant projects", able to combat distorting images and to push towards the discovery of the "other" in the Mediterranean. In light of this, those working in the image-media have called for us to encourage the translation and diffusion of those audio-visual works which shed light on the relationship between the neighbouring peoples on the Mediterranean. The stakes of audio-visual production are high, not merely in sociological and cultural terms but also in economic terms. For example, for a large proportion of the population watching television is the main daily activity and often the only regular source of information. In this way, it influences our view of the world. The sparring between Al-Jazirah and CNN during the Iraqi conflict is very telling in this regard. The all-dynamic audio-visual sector becomes more and more open, and with that contradictory, pluralist and plural. Internet, multimedia, satellite, cable and the numeric/hertzian waves open frontiers and create new ways of diffusing and consuming culture.

Northern screens are screening out Southern products

And yet in the Mediterranean the audio-visual sector is characterised by huge imbalances, for starters the unequal resources (human, technical, financial etc). The cohesiveness of the sector in and around the Mediterranean depends on long-term financial solidarity being shown by the North towards the South. Otherwise, exchanges in this sector between the Mediterranean countries are almost non-existent. Here Southern Europe and Northern Africa share a similar story. For example, the Spanish are not interested in the content of Greek media on television; Algerians do not watch Tunisian programmes (even though the language is the same). Not to mention the fact that Northern TV screens remain closed to audio-visual products coming from the South. As a result, Moroccans consume 80% of Northern TV programmes whilst the North consumes a mere 3% of programmes from the South.

"Each country produces programmes with a mind to targeting the South, but this has its limits. For at the end of the day, the aim of each country is to pedal a political 'discourse', an ideology, its own cultural way of life. Television viewers in North Africa do not feel they are represented by TV channels which are oriented towards French political interests." emphasises Mohamed Abassa (1).

Given the number of Arabs working in the audio-visual sector, the images produced and diffused in the Mediterranean are still too ethnocentric. Given the number of Europeans working in the sector, the images produced for the South are often used by authorities to pedal a positive image of their country; which also gives rise to difficulties in working together. In short, North-South co-operation in the audio-visual sphere is far from a workable reality.

The Mediterranean as a an interweaving of cultures

Not only is audio-visual culture in the Mediterranean not homogenous, but it is also still far from open to the 'other'. It leads to a sort of closeted view of national identity. Both the Mediterranean media professionals and the public live enclosed in a hall of mirrors. In documentaries, films and programmes their gazes rarely meet. Images are also received in such a manner as to be quickly consumed and "digested" without any discussion which might give rise to a critical dialogue. Yet, following the argument of Pedrag Matvejevic, author of "a Mediterranean Breviary", the Mediterranean can only exist through the intercultural relations between its peoples and their cultures. It is not a given, uniform entity. Rather, it is much more of a mosaic or interweaving of history, cultures, peoples, races and religions and so on. We might also imagine that, in the Euro-Mediterranean project, audio-visual media might have a role to play in the transmission of this cultural diversity.

Adopting as its basis the crucial role to be played by audio-visual production in the developing Euro-Mediterranean dialogue, the Permanent Conference of the Mediterranean Audio-visual sector (CoPeAM) has brought together, since its creation in 1994, experts from the field of television, radio and multimedia, independent directors and producers, but also intellectuals, universities, international institutions and organisations. "The network of networks", the CoPeAM emphasises more than ever the danger of images which can create false representations in a region like the Mediterranean. Delegates counter the erroneous and pernicious theory of "shock of civilisations" with a philosophy of "dialogue between civilisations and cultures".

During one such Conference on the Mediterranean audio-visual sector in 2001, Andreu Claret, managing director of the Catalan Mediterranean Institute underlined the fact that "we need to recognise our differences and cultivate those areas of shared identity. I would say that the appearance of Arab channels on television - along side the European channels - would be a positive step towards bringing this idea to fruition in the field of media or on television, and that we need to exchange programmes and films between different Mediterranean countries" (2). For the time being, the channels in question are limited to news (Euronews, Al-Jazira etc) or to the Franco-German coupling on "Arte". But in this field the countries on the Southern shores of the Mediterranean have a trump card: whilst Europe awaits its Esperanto, Arabic rules the (air) waves. So will we one day see a kawa babel bridging the gap between these two shores?

(1) Interview with Mohamed Absassa, Director of the Absassa Institute, by Benyoub Djilali in 'Journal de la CoPeAM', Algiers, May 2002.

(2) Andreu Claret, Thessalonica Conference, 2001.