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Teaching Narrative Analysis with A&E’s “Biography”

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Hồ Chí Minh
DVD, 50 minutes, color, 2000

Kim Jong Il
DVD, 50 minutes, color, 2003

Dalai Lama: The Soul of Tibet

Reviewed by John H. Sagers

A&E’s Biography series provides a valuable source for analyzing narrative and representation of Asian subjects on American commercial television. Focusing on programs about the Tibetan Dalai Lama, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, and Vietnamese revolutionary Hồ Chí Minh, this essay will outline a method for classroom analysis of historical stories and what these stories mean for their target audiences.

Historical accuracy is a concern when using any documentary in class, and Biography programs often raise questions. For example, if Kim Jong Il’s personal life is shrouded in secrecy, why indulge in speculation? Does it matter if film footage illustrating Hồ Chí Minh’s travels show mistreatment of colonized Africans and Asians that he may not have witnessed himself? how should we evaluate statements of Hollywood actors and Tibet activists about the Dalai Lama’s spiritual depth? It is important to raise these questions, and debunking the programs could make interesting term paper assignments.

However, with limited class time and additional research, we can set aside factual issues for the time being and analyze the historical narratives on their own terms. Biography programs usually follow a similar structure of dramatic narrative.1 in the first few minutes, the protagonist confronts a serious problem. Pausing five minutes into the program, we can ask what kind of story we expect given the introductory remarks. “The fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet is a monk, politician, diplomat, and Nobel Laureate. He is also the spiritual and secular leader of a nation that only exists in exile. Tibet, the lost kingdom, once known as Shangri-La.” This suggests a tale of heroic struggle to preserve a lost culture. Hồ Chí Minh’s story is one of persistence against all odds: “He was small even by Vietnamese standards. only four feet eleven inches tall and barely 100 pounds, he appeared frail. . . . Perhaps no leader in history has resisted the guns of the enemy as stubbornly or as long as this little man. . . . he had an unshakable will that helped liberate a country and humble a superpower.”

The depiction of the North Korean leader is of a classic villain: “Kim Jong Il rules a country on the edge of starvation with an iron hand. Is his weapons build-up a threat of war or a desperate attempt to be taken more seriously on the world stage?” In these opening statements, we find the stories’ central problems and insights as to how the protagonists will solve those problems.

Next, the back story explains how the protagonist arrived at the crisis moment. anecdotes about birth, early childhood, and family relationships illustrate character development. This is probably where the facts are most controversial, but these early stories tell us what the protagonist symbolized to those recording the events. For example, the Dalai Lama was identified as a young boy who miraculously identified monks by name and objects belonging to his predecessor. If one does not believe the Dalai Lama is reincarnated in each generation, these stories are fanciful legends, but to Tibetan Buddhists and others, they illustrate the Dalai Lama’s divine stature.

In Kim Jong Il’s case, on the other hand, “There were acts of evil attached to his name soon after his birth. A terrifying story links him to the death of his own brother who drowned at the age of two.” The program then shows Kim indulging his every whim, including an obsession with movies that led him to kidnap a South Korean actress and director. Hồ Chí Minh tries to work within the French colonial system, but is frustrated at every turn. Finally, he “determined to become a follower of Lenin, not because he had any understanding of Marxist ideology, but because he loved the strategy that Lenin had set forth as a means of liberating the colonial peoples.” After the early stories, we can pause and ask if things are a bit too neat. How do the narratives make certain outcomes seem inevitable? what facts are presented to give us that impression?

The last ten minutes of each program show the protagonist resolving the main issues confronting them. The Dalai Lama focused on the principle of non-violence and raising international awareness for the Tibetan issue. Hồ Chí Minh died six years before the Việt Nam war ended, but his cause eventually prevailed. Kim Jong Il was rational and used his nuclear weapons program to bargain for aid and to make foreign attempts to eliminate him from power prohibitively expensive. At this point, the class can focus on those issues that remain controversial. How sympathetic should we be to the plight of the Dalai Lama’s “feudal theocracy” and would he have been such a “fan of Thomas Jefferson” and democracy had he not been courting international aid for his cause? Was Hồ Chí Minh’s revolution worth the high cost of war, authoritarian politics, and economic hardship? Is it better to take a hard line with Kim Jong Il, or should other world leaders negotiate to avoid costly confrontations?

The purpose of these Biography programs is stated in an ad appearing at the start of the Hồ Chí Minh video, “Slip into the lives of some of the world’s most fascinating people. Watch A&C’s Biography and escape the ordinary.” These are stories selected and constructed to entertain a television audience with provocative (sometimes even sensational) coverage of subjects already familiar to viewers. Nevertheless, the Biography series, an excellent classroom resource for teaching critical analysis of the stories surrounding Asian leaders, will hopefully encourage students to read more about them.