The real world on reel: 20 Oscar-worthy movies about development

By Yula Marie Mediavillo 23 February 2016

Film reels line the ceiling of the Hollywood and Vine metro station in Los Angeles, California. Devex sorted through 50 development-themed films to shine the spotlight on those that have earned an Oscar nod. Photo by: vistavision / CC BY-NC-ND

The film awards season will culminate next week with the Academy Awards. Usually an event of glitz and glamour, this year’s Academy Awards has been tainted by controversy around the observed lack of diversity in its nominations, leading some celebrities to boycott the show. (This could also be the year that Leonardo DiCaprio, a best actor frontrunner for years, finally wins.)

But issues and predictions aside, the Academy Awards has always been a celebration of achievements in film, a popular medium for entertainment, communication and education. Movies have the power to inspire, to influence and to raise awareness on a wide range of topics. Depictions of real world issues on reel are not uncommon; there have been a growing number of films exploring subject matters like racism, sexism, conflict, poverty and inequality.

The World Bank released a paper in June 2013 titled, “The Projection of Development,” which explores how development is portrayed in movies and how these cinematic representations can potentially be a source for future research on the issue. It lists 50 development-themed films from 1952 to 2011, but below, Devex shines the spotlight on those that have earned an Oscar nod.

Viva Zapata” — 1952
Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata leads a rebellion against the oppressive dictatorship of president Porfirio Diaz in the early 20th century.

Gandhi” — 1982
A biographical film about the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, beginning in 1893 when he was thrown off a white-only compartment of a South African train and concluding with his assassination in 1948. It won best picture in the 55th Academy Awards.

via Youtube

The Year of Living Dangerously” — 1982
A young Australian reporter navigates the political turmoil of Indonesia during the rule of President Sukarno — with the help of a photographer.

Under Fire” — 1983
Three journalists entangled in a romantic triangle are also involved in political intrigue during the last days of the Somozoa regime in Nicaragua, before it falls to a popular revolution in 1979.

The Killing Fields” — 1984
This British drama is about the experiences of two journalists during Pol Pot's Year Zero campaign in Cambodia that left millions dead. It won best picture at the 57th Academy Awards.

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Salvador”— 1986
An American photojournalist gets caught in a political struggle in El Salvador in 1980.

The Mission” — 1986
In South America, a Jesuit missionary converts a Guaraní community and protects the tribe from falling into slavery. It was nominated for best picture during the 59th Academy Awards, but lost to “Platoon.”

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Salaam Bombay” — 1988
A young boy is abandoned by his mother at the Apollo Circus, telling him that he can return home when he can afford 500 rupees to pay for his brother’s bicycle that he ruined.

City of God” — 2002
Two boys growing up in a violent neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro take different paths: One becomes a photographer, the other a drug dealer.

Dirty Pretty Things” — 2002
An illegal Nigerian immigrant who works as a cab driver and moonlights as a hotel attendant discovers the darker side of London life.

Hotel Rwanda” — 2004
The true story of Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who housed over a thousand Tutsi refugees during their struggle against the Hutu militia in Rwanda.

The Constant Gardener— 2005
A British diplomat relocates to Kenya with his young wife, an activist for social justice. When she’s found murdered, he works to get to the bottom of a life-changing secret involving big business and corporate corruption

Tsotsi” — 2005
A violent young gang leader prowls the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa. After casually shooting a woman and stealing her car, he discovers her baby in the back seat, which becomes a turning point for the troubled young man.

Blood Diamond” — 2006
In war-torn Sierra Leone, a white South African mercenary and a black Mende fisherman — with the help of an American journalist — become joined in a common quest to recover a rare gem.

The Last King of Scotland” — 2006
While in Uganda on a medical mission, Scottish Dr. Nicholas Garrigan becomes the personal physician of dictator Idi Amin. He soon comes to realize that he is complicit in Amin’s atrocities.

Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema” — 2008
A young crook’s rise from small-time criminal to powerful crime entrepreneur in Johannesburg before and after the fall of apartheid.

Slumdog Millionaire” — 2008
Set and filmed in India, a young man is able to correctly answer at every stage of the quiz show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” by recalling incidents at different periods of his life. It won best picture at the 81st Academy Awards.

via YouTube

The Hurt Locker” — 2008
An independent film about the Iraq War Explosive Ordnance Disposal team. It won best picture at the 82nd Academy Awards. It’s the first and only best picture winner with a female director.

via YouTube

In the Loop” — 2009
A war of words ensues in this political satire revolving around a group of skeptical American and British operatives who attempt to prevent a war between two countries.

Even the Rain— 2010
Bolivian film extras launch a protest against the privatization of their water supply.

What is your favorite movie that sheds light on development issues?

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About the author

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Yula Marie Mediavillo

Yula Mediavillo shapes the “look” of Devex every day in her role as photo editor and content manager. Yula also helps to design news-related web features and explore ways to better present information to the Devex audience via our website, newsletters and social media.


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