Nord Sud: The Image of the Dam

Ricardo Gómez Umaña

This paper summarizes a study of a French-Canadian TV program series, Nord Sud, in an attempt to understand the way it is constructed as a mass media production. In it we try to uncover the unwritten rules behind the choice of topics, their treatment and their possible solutions, which constitute a particular view of the world. We find the programs in Nord Sud usually show complex social and political conflicts in different regions of the Third World (north-south axis) in a highly individualized way (privatization), and offer its Québec audience a feeling of understanding, sometimes even of helping resolve far-away problems with a limited contribution (banalization). We will propose that Nord Sud can be compared to the figure of a dam, receiving the ceaseless flow of events like a TV news broadcast, but momentarily attempting to contain it into a still lake in the manner of téléromans. In the end, we will propose that Nord Sud does not necessarily change the dominant ethnocentric world view of North American mass media, but rather tends to reinforce it by offering an outlook that establishes strong mediations between the viewer and Third World problems.

Nord Sud: The Dam

Nord Sud is transmitted on Radio Québec every Wednesday evening at 8:30 p.m. It features documentaries made in different countries of the Third World, that is, Latin America, Africa, and Southern Asia. A series of images of manifestations of protest and individuals in close-up introduce every program, with instants of reporting from key conflict points in the South Chile, Angola, China. This introduction ends with André Payette presenting the problem that will be shown that day, if possible linking it with prior or future programs, and announcing what will happen after the day's documentary is shown. By the time the actual documentary begins, we have gone through the ritual of problematization, we know what the program will be about, and most important, we know what to expect in the end. We can watch in peace.

This short ritual introduces us not only to the day's "problem," but also to the general view of "the problems in the South" as seen by Nord Sud. We will rarely see a program dedicated to a community that has successfully organized essential services on its own, or to the disastrous results of a U.S.-sponsored organization project that found no local community support. We get the feeling Nord Sud prefers to show a problem involving individuals who struggle to survive in the misery of war-torn regions, or who protest the violence of dictatorial regimes. Perhaps the initial succession of images of protest throughout the south, in long shots and close-ups, together with the journalist reporting the "conflict" to the camera-viewer, is only a confirmation of the program's general outlook of events in the South: there is an "event" as long as there is "conflict." But we will see that the "conflict" is reduced to the proportions of the individual who suffers it, resulting in a problematization that tends to show complex political issues as personal humanitarian causes. André Payette announcing the conflict becomes an open window to the South, but a window that only helps viewers in the North reinforce an ethnocentric view of the Third World.

Nord Sud is not a news broadcast about the Third World, nor is it a kitchen "soap" (téléroman) with ethnic protagonists. And yet it sometimes seems to be both. We feel the programs in Nord Sud draw at times from the ceaseless flow of "social events" in the manner of TV news, and at times from the unchanging dimensions of personal drama found in téléromans. In fact we feel its most typical programs are a mixture of both, the personal drama within the social context. This makes us think not of the "river" of TV news, or of the "lake" of TV romans, but of a "dam," fed and bled by a stream of contexts never too well understood, and in which personal heroism and tragedy find enough shallow water to drift without creating many waves for half an hour.

The fact that the "streams of social contexts" take place in the Third World, in the South, makes this program series exceptional among documentary series. Furthermore, the protagonism of the poor and the weak, the "marginal" that make up the majority of our planet's population, makes Nord Sud even more exceptional. The change of axis from an extension of the East-West conflict in the Third World, to North-South differences and issues, is a most remarkable accomplishment of the emission, even if the problems treated rarely touch the relation between North and South itself. Nonetheless, the transactions the program does with its media audience are not easy: it presents a social context under the cover of a TV-romanesque personal drama, probably imagining the audience will thus better uncover the social process behind the dramatic stories. The result may be a diluted formula for both sides, too personal for one side, too social for the other; a dam. Neither river nor lake.

This shortness of social analysis is complemented by sporadic studio interviews following the documentaries, frequently with the journalists who have directed them. Even though such interviews may have the purpose of enriching the social component of the program's recipe, they often complement the relationship with the media audience, offering still another hybrid between TV contest and talk show. The talk show further distances the viewer from the distant problems, offering yet another mediation and interpretation by a white specialist from the North. The journalist has been there and understands that reality, therefore he can interpret it for us and make us feel better. In this way the circle is complete. TV news and TV roman, talk show and live contest: interesting mélange that the North breeds in its concern for its relations with the South.

We will draw some details from one of three programs dedicated to refugees, to women refugees in particular, in three different countries and contexts in the world. The first one was shown the second week of October, and featured the life drama of Juana, a Salvadorean refugee in Costa Rica. Alone with four kids and expecting a fifth, selling tortillas door to door and occasionally resorting to prostitution to be able to feed her children, she was granted refugee status in Canada shortly after the recording of the video. The second program, which we analyzed more closely for this study, was shown on the second week of November, and featured the even more dramatic story of Mai Len, a Vietnamese girl in a Malaysian refugee camp. The third one is announced to be about another woman in Africa, probably Mozambique, but it has not yet been shown.

These three programs about refugees are inserted into a varied collage of problems shown in the preceding and following weeks. We watched most Nord Sud programs during September, October, and November 1989. Alternating between continents we flew around the world more than three times, seeing the individuals live in the middle of conflicts and struggles, present and past. Sometimes an announced program was replaced by an urgent news item, and sometimes an old topic would appear in the midst of a convulsive week. Ranging between election campaigns and student protests to train lines and hunger strikes, the topics are usually varied and unpredictable. But the central figure of an individual struggling in a dramatic context to survive or achieve something next to impossible is almost ever-present.

One program featured a Chinese student preparing a pro-democracy demonstration in the weeks before the massacre in Beijing. There were very few students who responded to his call, and the narrator explained that maybe the foreign TV crew following the team drove other students away. The organizer had been imprisoned after the crackdown, and Nord Sud had hurried to edit and show this program instead of the announced one. The talk show at the end let us know they had sent a copy of the program to Amnesty International, hoping to prevent the assassination of the student leader. The quality of the images is not very good, but the urgent character of the "news" puts up with this lack.

A railroad in Angola was featured in another program. An exception to the personal stories tendency of Nord Sud, the train is a vital part of the country's economy, and a constant target of the rebels' attacks. This has been the only program mentioning foreign powers' interests in the region, and excluding white specialists from the North interpreting the problem. The journalist preferred to interview the driver, the woman who sells soft drinks, the local government agent. If he had only been able to let somebody else speak in the talk show at the end. . .

The week following the worst violence in 10 years in El Salvador, Nord Sud showed a program about a Human Rights conference in Burundi. This one featured André Payette in person, who directed the program himself, performing a long series of interviews with different specialists who attended the conference in Bujumbura, the country's capital. "Follow me in the discovery of this country," he said at the beginning, and he meant it. The viewer actually follows him in the tourist bus to a local marketplace, and sees the tourists taking pictures of the children. The long interviews were mostly followed by M. Payette's long comments, and the final talk show with himself was recorded in the hotel lobby, as he prepared to leave for the airport.

Preparing for elections in Chile after 16 years of dictatorship, a communist leader was featured in the last program in November. She considers herself the historic conscience of the Chilean people, and we see her campaigning in the midst of images of police repression. Her father had disappeared, her husband assassinated, and she has reason to want the system to change. Somewhat unusually, this program showed file images of the time of the coup in 1973, and of the burial of her husband, a human rights activist, in 1985. It is the only program we saw that showed file footage, thus giving more historic perspective to the problem treated.

Most of these programs have a trait in common: they show a conflictive social situation as seen or lived by an individual or, less frequently, by a group. Varied in its scope of topics, it remains clear that Nord Sud does not hold any extreme political position, and that it tries to go beyond the "cold war" world view that sees a constant opposition of East and West in terms of Communism vs. Capitalism, Totalitarism vs. Freedom. Nord Sud will feature both the Chinese pro-democracy leader, and the Chilean communist leader, without contradicting its North-South axis.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of Nord Sud is that it attempts to overcome the cold war world view, replacing it with a North-South approach that makes more sense to the countries and people in the South. Nevertheless, the major weakness of the program series may be that it prefers not to show the conflicts in the South as the complex social, political and historical processes they usually are, but as individual problems and stories easily understandable for the North. Furthermore, the unbalanced relationship between North and South, usually a strong component of the South's problems, is regularly avoided. Instead, the North, meaning Western industrialized countries in Europe and North America, easily becomes the point of reference for comparison and understanding; statistics are sometimes offered, and "specialists" are usually there to help explain the situation.

Most Nord Sud programs share, in one way or another, many of these traits. We selected by chance one particular Wednesday, to record and analyze one program in detail. The result of this exercise reinforces the trend we have been describing. The story of Mai Len, a Vietnamese girl in a Malaysian refugee camp, is not particularly outstanding in the series of programs viewed. Most of its characteristics may be found, in one way or another, in other programs about other subjects in other regions of the South. Some journalists may have other styles, and one or two may try to develop the stories in slightly different ways. But we believe this particular case offers valid clues to the understanding of the program series as such.

Mai Len Looks for a Home: TV news or TV roman

Perhaps the most striking fact of this program is that it is about a 13-year-old girl, in charge of a younger brother, confronting life all alone in a refugee camp. We do not intend to comment on or analyze her life or situation, or the lives and situations of the many refugees in that same camp or in many around the world. In our study, we rather attempted to understand how the documentary that shows her situation was made, and how it was shown in the Nord Sud program. We found that the way in which her story is shown is as revealing as the story itself, in the sense that it follows a fixed yet unwritten set of rules of construction. This construction shares the language of TV news and TV roman, and is inserted into a weekly program that borrows from TV contests and talk shows, making Nord Sud a blend of forms and contents of a very peculiar nature, in order to render locally "edible" a media production about a harsh but distant reality.

André Payette introduces us to the problem: it is the story of a girl from "a country that is looking to be free but continues to be repressive," looking for a country and a home to live in. He then warns us that at the end of the program he will talk with the journalist who made the video to see what can be done. With the story of Mai Len, Nord Sud intends to represent a story that repeats itself in all continents. The reminder that the particular case we see is not unique is continuously repeated several times throughout the video, constituting one of the elements of "socialization" of the "private" story we are being told, a reminder that the TV romanesque drama is not fiction but "real life," that the lake is more like a river.

The lakes of TV romans are an image of the banalization of personal conflict in such a way that it will always be resolved in the end, and in which each new episode in the series is but a pebble thrown on the surface, forming a few waves that slowly die away. But the journalist of Nord Sud wants to make sure we get the dramatic feeling of the girl's voyage, without forgetting this is not a lake of "fiction" but a river of "reality" in constant movement and change, a reality of which this girl is only a part. She is an individual case that represents and is supposed to help us understand the social, and provide us with the illusion of stopping the flow for an instant, controlling uncontrollable reality for a moment, making it solvable, at least in one part: an artificial lake containing the flow of the river, that is, a dam.

Throughout the video, and in a continuous alternation of voices, the narrator is a mediator between one actor and another, between Mai Len and a specialist, between one specialist and another. In fact, the narrator really mediates the relationship between the story and the viewer. The "voice of God" explains, anticipates, clarifies: a sort of grinding of hard-core reality in order to make it edible, a preparation for what will come, an interpretation of what is going on, an evaluation of what happened. The narrator does not leave anything unexplained, even if the images can show what words can only repeat or contradict. The narrator leads us along the story, frequently making sure we remember this is not fiction.

At one moment in the video, a white woman is interviewed outside the barracks where the refugee children live. After a few words the "specialist" is introduced: Maureen Scott, a social worker dedicated to the children in the camp. She says we (viewers in the North) would consider it neglect and abuse, and parents who sent their children away to those conditions would be condemned. But for these children the situation is different. She says the kids understand and know why their parents sent them away, but they suffer emotionally and feel they have been abandoned. The argument of the emotional condition, vulnerability, suffering or dependence of the refugee children is frequently mentioned, and will constitute a major instrument of seduction for the viewer. Let us not forget that Mai Len, and many refugees like her, is looking for a host country and a home to live.

The particular camp shown is said to have over 20,000 refugees, so less than 5% are abandoned children. But abandoned children, girls in emotional distress, "sell" the needs of the refugees better because they "touch the heart" of the viewers in the North. In a recent mainstream fiction film, Indiana Jones enters the Temple of Doom to liberate the village's children, kidnapped to work as slave miners for a wicked oriental master. Both Indiana Jones' liberated children and the Vietnamese refugees with Mai Len share the viewer's concern and commiseration in very much the same way. Children may be absent from most TV romans for practical production purposes, and are usually absent from TV news except in some disasters and faits divers. But the humanitarian "use" of children for humanitarian purposes is more frequent, and the case of Mai Len is more than typical. We will see some of the results of this "use" in the second part of the program.

Nord Sud Looks for a Solution: TV Contest or Talk Show

After the documentary is finished, the viewer returns to the studio setting, where André Payette is behind his desk, and Raymonde Provencher, the journalist who directed the video about Mai Len, is sitting at one side. The two will now have a conversation very much like that in a talk show, with the appearance of live transmission. This talk show, interviewing not a Vietnamese refugee or a UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) representative but the journalist herself, reinforces the mediation between the audience and the story. The viewers will not be left alone to draw their own conclusions. It is therefore interesting to see the role the TV audience will play in this talk show; after a few comments, André Payette says that after the program about the Salvadorean refugee, Juana, he received two letters. The letters, the way they are mentioned and read, and the answers they are given, are what make us think of a TV contest in the midst of the talk show. The first letter comes from Montréal, from M. and Mme Gagnon. They say they saw the program about Juana and want to adopt one of her children before she comes to Canada. They want to know what they can do. Raymonde Provencher answers they may not necessarily be able to choose "their refugee," but they can help The Refugees, and offers the phone number of the UNHCR on the screen.

But, besides the answer, what draws our attention is the letter itself, the reaction of the common viewers in their living rooms in the North: They want to do something about the drama they saw on the program last month, they want to adopt that particular child they saw on the screen, the young son of Juana, she who had cried in front of the camera confessing she had sometimes given in to prostitution to feed her children. M. and Mme Gagnon were touched by the dramatic program they saw, which they could probably understand because it spoke the lake-like language of TV roman, but they had to act because it was not fiction but the river of reality that flows ceaselessly beyond their grasp. Only this time it was not beyond their grasp, it was there: palpable and solvable in its dramatic dimension; the barrage was there to form the dam that offered them the illusion of a solution. An individual, dramatic and courageous solution that would contain the neverending flow of events that constitute TV news. A solution too close to the timid waves of the pebble on the still lake, too close to an episode of a TV roman. A solution similar to the finger in the crack of the dam, but a solution at least. And a solution very much in accordance with the proposal of the problem that the program was offering to begin with.


We have seen the basic structure of Nord Sud of Radio Québec, and analyzed one of its programs about women refugees. The story of Mai Len attempted to move the viewer to do something for refugees in the Third World. But her story was mediated by the comments of white Western "specialists," and obviously by the journalist and the narrator, all of them establishing the North's view of the South. We then saw the journalist in person, speaking with André Payette in the studio, in a last attempt to help us cope with Mai Len's drama. M. Payette wrapped up the program hoping we had learned what has to be done.

The programs in Nord Sud are usually a mixture of TV news and TV romans, showing highly personalized stories in conflictive social contexts in the Third World. At the same time, we recognize in this approach a new North-South axis replacing the cold war East-West axis; we see there is a strong trend to favour a process of privatization of social conflict in the program series.

We find the programs are made following a more or less fixed (though probably unwritten) set of rules that determine the geographical distribution, the subject matter, and the way the problem is treated.

The subject matter is usually related to a complex political conflict, but is almost always treated from the perspective of an individual who suffers it or who tries to do something about it. This privatization of the social brings about the banalization of the conflict, offering easy solutions to the individual cases and avoiding a more complex understanding of the processes involved.

The treatment of the personal stories presented in each case favours a constant interpretation of the situation by specialists from the North, interviewed on location as part of the program. Frequently, the journalist himself or herself will be interviewed in the studio at the end of the program. These successive médiations tend to reinforce the ethnocentrism of the emission, offering a view of the South as seen by "trustworthy specialists" from the North.

We saw how the programs are shown in a setup that mixes TV contest and talk show, offering the spectators an illusion of participation in possible solutions to the problems presented, but solutions are mainly mediated by the privatization that characterizes the stories in the programs themselves. Finally, we have compared this program series with the figure of a dam, a mixture of flowing river and still lake, which offers the illusion of understanding the "flow of reality" and acting upon it, but in very personalized and "still" ways.

More than once, we have heard television in Québec is not ethnocentric because there is Nord Sud. We believe this is true only in part. It is true that a weekly half-hour program about problems in the Third World is an interesting space in which to develop a new outlook on the world. But Nord Sud opens a window that shows mostly complex political conflicts as personal humanitarian issues, and reinforces the ethnocentric view of the South as seen from the North. Perhaps the program's challenge would be to let the South speak up for itself.


Inspiration for these ideas was offered by Philippe Sohet, professor at the undergraduate program in communications of the Université du Québec à Montréal. I thank him for his support and advice. Nonetheless, the views here expressed are not necessarily shared by him and are my sole responsibility.
By mid-December 1989.

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