Secretary general pitches storylines to Hollywood

Just over a half-century ago, Alfred Hitchcock was famously denied access to shoot at the United Nations for a key scene in “North by Northwest.”

Not too long ago, Sydney Pollack went through hoops to secure permission to shoot parts of “The Interpreter” at the U.N.

On Monday, in an effort to prove how much the international org’s view of Hollywood has changed, the U.N. not only pitched as storylines its role in solving humanitarian crises and embarking on peacekeeping missions to a gathering of creative types, it also enlisted Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to do it.

At a U.N. event called the Global Creative Forum, held at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, Ban made the case that the U.N.’s agenda and mission was “sometimes more dramatic than Hollywood movies” and cited “The Constant Gardener” as the type of movie that featured humanitarian work in its storyline. He ran through an array of U.N. efforts, such as alleviating HIV-AIDS and addressing climate change, as well as curbing discrimination and violence against women. In fact, much of the forum was devoted to the topic of empowering women as a way to solve global problems.

Underlying the event is the sense that the U.N.’s image has far too often been that of a hapless bureaucracy on Manhattan’s East Side rather than an army of humanitarians spread out across the globe. Ban established what is called the Creative Community Outreach Initiative, mindful, he says, that if the movies are done in a “creative, compelling way, they can reach billions of people at once.”

The director of the initiative, Eric Falt, said the environment had changed from past days.

“We’re here to make amends in a way and perhaps to make friendships. We want to be able, through pop culture, to get people around the world to understand issues.”

To be sure, the U.N. has never really ignored Hollywood. Ever since Danny Kaye was named a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF in 1954, it’s deployed a host of famous figures around the world to shed light on hard-to-get-attention relief efforts. More recently, it’s tapped the likes of George Clooney and Charlize Theron as so-called messengers of peace, perhaps a recognition of the power of celebrity even as unlikely diplomats.

One messenger, Michael Douglas, who focuses on disarmament issues, conducted the Q&A with Ban.

The problem is that even celebrity activists have trouble getting their message heard — “raising awareness” is now a common catchphrase — in an ever-more cluttered media environment. So there’s the additional focus on storylines. The March 17 episode of NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU” features a story on sexual violence in the Congo.

“People I talk to don’t know that there are millions of people killed in the Congo,” said Neal Baer, the show’s exec producer. “They are astounded.”

Baer was part of a later panel that also included Falt, U.N. assistant secretary-general Robert C. Orr, director Terry George and two celebrity activists, Gloria Reuben and Mira Sorvino, the latter of whom said, “If we give a face to the suffering … then we can create that will at the highest and lowest level.”

But even as the U.N. is offering its cooperation, in the form of technical and logistical expertise, the more difficult hurdle is convincing the financial powers-that-be that such projects are commercially viable. Baer said there’s a “deep misconception” that the public is not interested. And while Ban met with reps from the Motion Picture Assn. of America and studio executives, George lamented the swing toward “excitement and escapism,” making it all the more difficult to make pictures like his “Hotel Rwanda,” which presents an inspirational story but also depicts international community inaction, including that of the U.N.

On that note, Falt assured the audience that the org is “not asking for creative control” in exchange for their cooperation.

Perhaps that was underscored by the presence of George, who is at work on a project about the life of Sergio Viera de Mello, the Brazilian U.N. diplomat who was killed in a bombing in 2003 while working as the secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq. While it is an amazing story of a U.N. diplomat, it also will feature his problems working with the Security Council, George said.

The trouble the U.N. has had is when used as an easy target, depicted as a kind of caricature that ignores the complexity of the organization. As George noted, “For the lack of a bad guy, it’s easy to turn to the monolith of the U.N.”

For his part, before the Westwood audience, Ban offered words of praise rather than critiques. He told of his fondness for Westerns, with “the obvious difference between good and evil,” and admitted to identifying in his role as secretary-general with the marshals who seek justice.

And it’s not too much of a surprise that the diplomat singled out Douglas’ “The American President” as well as “Spartacus,” starring Douglas’ father, Kirk.

Then he noted that Douglas was making a sequel to “Wall Street.” “I hope you make a good one this time,” Ban said. The aud laughed, before a smiling Douglas asked him, “What do you mean by ‘this time’?” He knew exactly what Ban was getting at — that Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” unintentionally became a credo in the Wall Street excesses to come — and the actor offered some words of assurance.

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