Latin America's Contested Pasts in Telenovelas and TV Series. A Cross-Sector Dialogue between Academia, Entertainment and Society

Latin America's Contested Pasts in Telenovelas and TV Series. A Cross-Sector Dialogue between Academia, Entertainment and Society

GUMELAB research project at the Freie Universität Berlin; German Historical Institute Washington
Washington D.C.
United States
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
07.09.2023 - 08.09.2023
Tatjana Louis, Departamento de Lenguas y Cultura, Universidad de los Andes

The burgeoning proliferation of telenovelas and TV series delving into the recent history of Latin America and their expanding global influence served as the impetus for the interdisciplinary research initiative known as GUMELAB (German translation of the acronym for History Transfer through Entertainment Media in Latin America. Laboratory for Memory and Digital Media Research) at the Freie Universität Berlin. This initiative, supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundeministerium für Bildung und Forschung - BMBF), recognizes the significance of these products of historical culture as vehicles of historical memory, shaping the collective consciousness and political ethos not only within national borders but also across international audiences.

In response to this, GUMELAB conceptualized the “Latin America's Contested Pasts in Telenovelas and TV Series. A Cross-Sector Dialogue between Academia, Entertainment and Society” conference and workshop, designed to foster an inclusive dialogue among academia, the entertainment industry, civil society organizations, and television viewers. Collaborating with the German Historical Institute of Washington, the conference provided a platform for exploring the complex intersections of history, entertainment, and societal narratives.

The conference and workshop were preceded by a kick-off event open to the public, in cooperation with the Goethe-Institute titled “TV Series and the Public Memory of Colonia Dignidad. An interdisciplinary Conversation & Screening about the German-Chilean TV Series Dignity”. The event was part of a broader series of events on Public Memory and Memorial Culture co-organized by the German Historical Institute Washington and the Goethe Institute Washington. During the event, GUMELAB presented three edited clips from the German-Chilean series "Dignity" (Joyn 2019 - Mega, 2020). GUMELAB´s Researchers STEFAN RINKE (Berlin) and HOLLE MEDING (Berlin) conversed with the series' producers MARÍA ELENA WOOD (Santiago de Chile) and ANDREAS GUTZEIT (Berlin). The creators discussed their motivations for exploring Colonia Dignidad's history and its links to the Pinochet dictatorship on television, highlighting the challenges of balancing fiction and reality in a historical context. A central theme in the discussion revolves around the role of fiction in portraying historical events. Gutzeit emphasized that in his historical productions, they prioritize emotional truth over factual accuracy, stating, "“we are not looking for the factual truth but looking for emotional truth”. Wood echoed this sentiment, highlighting his practice of consulting archives to enhance his audiovisual projects. However, she acknowledged that sometimes sources are lacking or inaccessible, leading to the necessity of inventing elements to fill the gaps, where fiction can serve to complement historical narratives.

The conference comprised two roundtable discussions along with a presentation of the ongoing results of the GUMELAB project. The first roundtable, moderated by MÓNIKA CONTRERAS SAIZ (Berlin), brought together screenwriters, producers, and academics involved in the creation and study of telenovelas and TV series depicting the Latin American historical narrative. The discussion commenced by delving into the significance of the commonly used disclaimer, “Any Resemblance to the Past is pure Coincidence”, prevalent in this genre of television productions. Beyond its practical function of legal protection, JUAN CAMILO FERRAND (Miami), a scriptwriter of Latin American telenovelas and TV series, emphasized that this disclaimer ensures the freedom to craft fiction. Producer and showrunner ANDREAS GUTZEIT (Berlin) contributed to the discussion by emphasizing the appeal of incorporating real historical figures into television narratives. He noted that these characters resonate more with audiences as they provide a recognizable reference point. Gutzeit further remarked, "we never truly encounter a story that has never been told before; rather, it's always a fresh perspective on a familiar narrative".

Expanding on this theme, MARÍA ELENA WOOD (Santiago de Chile), a Chilean producer renowned for her work on TV series depicting recent Chilean history, contributed to the discussion by stressing the significance of adhering to legal protocols specific to each country when addressing legal cases in storytelling. She explained that in Chile, narratives can only be developed if the individuals involved in the crime are public figures who have been officially tried and convicted. In instances where justice has not been served in reality, Wood asserted that fiction can provide a platform to rectify this imbalance. She concluded that these reality-based TV series and telenovelas serve as a vehicle for vindication, particularly for victims of dictatorship. “In fiction, the guilty can face consequences for their actions”, Wood affirmed, thus ensuring the preservation of honor and dignity for their victims. She emphasized the importance of acknowledging marginalized voices in history, such as those of slaves and women, noting that fiction provides the freedom to amplify these voices which may not be adequately represented in historical archives.

The selection of a particular historical narrative is far from arbitrary; rather, it reflects the personal interests and motivations of the creators involved. The discussion highlighted how the inception of these audiovisual projects is fundamentally shaped by the individual perspectives of their creators, transcending institutional and industrial frameworks. Whether they are scriptwriters or producers, these creators are active social agents with distinct viewpoints on the subject matter they aim to explore. Wood further emphasized that this principle applies not only to fictional productions but also to documentary works. In both genres, an interpretation of the past is inherently embedded, challenging the notion of objectivity. As Wood succinctly put it, “It is impossible to remain neutral when telling stories.”

Finally, the panel delved into the educational aspect of these productions. Juan Camilo Ferrand emphasized that works addressing historical subjects go beyond mere entertainment; they possess educational value as they simplify complex historical narratives. For instance, when Ferrand penned the script for the renowned Colombian telenovela “Pablo Escobar, El patrón de mal”, he aimed to craft a story that would appeal to a wide audience, including “his father and niece”. He believes this approach contributed to the telenovela's success, as it made the storyline accessible to everyone. JUNE ERLICK (Boston), whose research focuses on the telenovela as a social phenomenon in Latin America, illustrated how these programs can serve as historical teachers for generations who did not experience the events firsthand. She recounted the case of a 10-year-old Colombian boy who claimed to have learned about the Colombian historical event known as the Palace of Justice siege from “Pablo Escobar, El patrón de mal”, highlighting the telenovela as a primary source of information on the subject. In contrast, Andreas Gutzeit asserted that while these productions do entertain, their primary objective is not necessarily educational. He believes that their ability to evoke emotions is what ultimately influences perceptions. Gutzeit explained that in his own productions, he prioritizes capturing the essence of the present rather than adhering strictly to historical accuracy. He contends that instilling moral values through storytelling can have a more profound impact on shaping individuals than simply learning from the past.

The following roundtable focused on methods for researching historical television fiction and was moderated by HANNAH MÜSSEMANN (Berlin). Experts in data science, communication science and history reflected on various aspects to consider in methodological designs for studying television fiction. LEONARDO PACHÓN (Medellín), expert in data science, shared his experience in the development of the E-Research component with the GUMELAB research team. They have combined Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques and Big Data analysis to capture information from social networks related to the telenovelas and TV series investigated by GUMELAB, discussing the scopes and limitations of this methodology. Among the scopes is the ability to provide information to track international viewing routes, identifying who watches what, where, and when, while one of the limitations is the ethical dilemma of working with data that, although public, were not intended by their issuers for research purposes.

DELIA GONZÁLEZ DE REUFELS (Bremen), a historian and editor of the German magazine, advocated for the convergence of research fields such as media science, media history and media archeology for fictional television productions that include historical archival material. This phenomenon, known as “Bildmigration”, holds significance as fiction productions utilize it within their plots. However, it is important to note that these images are always removed from their original context, a phenomenon commonly referred to as historical reenactment. JUAN PIÑON (New York), coordinator in the United States of the Ibero-American Observatory of Television Fiction (OBITEL), emphasized the importance of the systematization of fiction production, underscoring OBITEL's contributions in this regard. He explained that OBITEL's work in the United States is pivotal due to the substantial Latino viewership, exceeding 60 million, necessitating market adaptation to a continuously expanding demographic. Moreover, drawing from his research on the intersection of corporate dynamics within Latin American transnational media and the established production mode of U.S. Latino media, and its impact on Latino representations, he contends that despite changes in viewing formats, production contexts persistently involve white men narrating Latino stories.

CLAUDIA LAGOS (Santiago de Chile), a researcher in television fiction from a gender perspective, elucidated the significance of this field. Fiction that challenges gender norms can effectively elevate such issues onto the political agenda, as evidenced by the discourse surrounding gender violence and abortion. Central to this trajectory are feminist and intersectional theories. The dialogue gained depth through the insights provided by ENRIQUE URIBE-JONGBLOED (Cardiff), whose research delves into the portrayal of violence in fiction. Uribe-Jongbloed underscored findings from audience studies, revealing significant fluctuations in the reception of violence based on gender. Scenes deemed highly violent by women may not elicit the same response from the men who conceive them. This underscores the imperative to reflect on the ethical responsibility of fiction—what is represented and how—given its profound impact on collective memory. In conclusion, EDWARD GOYENECHE-GÓMEZ (Bogotá) added depth to the concluding discussion by highlighting the presence of audiovisual representation codes in historical narratives. These codes tend to reflect contemporary viewpoints rather than faithfully depicting the past, illustrating our current approach to historical interpretation. This topic holds particular relevance as it shifts the focus away from the mere representation of the past to our present-day engagement with historical narratives.

The event concluded with a workshop focused on exploring the educational potential of telenovelas and TV series depicting the recent Latin American past. The capacity of these productions to address controversial and traumatic issues was analyzed, along with the associated risks of re-victimization or stigmatization of the represented social actors. Additionally, strategies to promote critical consumption of these historical fiction series were discussed, as well as their impact on the current political landscape. The workshop followed the “world café” methodology, facilitating multiple conversations on complementary topics. Participants were divided into four groups, comprising members of television production teams, viewers previously interviewed for audience studies in the GUMELAB project, representatives of civil society organizations, and academics.

In response to the question of whether these TV series can serve as educational material, the members of television production teams emphasized the importance of distinguishing between responsible entertainment and education. They underscored that responsible entertainment involves contextualizing audiovisual products and focuses more on conveying emotional truths rather than presenting factual information. Conversely, education entails the teaching of concrete facts. Some academics argued that these TV series can play a complementary role in history education, provided they are carefully selected and appropriate strategies, including an investigation into their production contexts, are incorporated. Other scholars noted that the usefulness of these TV series as pedagogical material may vary depending on the age of the target audience; they may be more relevant for young people, as these TV series are part of their frame of reference, while they may be less pertinent for those with more life experience. From the perspective of NGOs and viewers, it was asserted that these television productions can effectively be used as pedagogical tools, serving as a springboard for addressing significant issues, prompting questions, and preparing future generations for critical media consumption.

Regarding the treatment of controversial and traumatic topics, the members of television production teams emphasized that the decision to depict victims of sensitive Latin American pasts, for instance, is an editorial one. This decision encompasses both the selection of which victims to portray and the manner in which they are depicted. It involves considering whether to solely depict them as victims or to delve into their entire life stories within the plot. Additionally, it was noted that the economic model of production also influences these decisions, as not all productions are inclined to tackle sensitive issues. Conversely, NGOs and the academic sector highlighted the potential of involving victims in the creation process and listening to their perspectives, which can evoke gratitude or feelings of victimization, contingent upon the execution of this approach.

The conference and workshop provided a platform to delve into the intricate intersections of history, entertainment, and social narratives. It underscored the significance of editorial decisions in portraying controversial and traumatic subjects, stressing the inclusion of victims' voices and sensitivity to their experiences. Furthermore, the discussions delved into potential strategies to promote critical engagement with these television productions. Suggestions included integrating them into educational contexts, establishing guidelines to verify factual accuracy, and forming advisory groups for script development. The conference acknowledged the power of telenovelas and historical TV series to stimulate dialogue on contemporary issues and influence perceptions of the world, particularly among younger audiences who view these media as a supplementary source of information alongside traditional education. In summary, the conference underscored the importance of critically examining both the production and consumption of these television dramas, recognizing their role in shaping historical and social narratives.

Conference Overview:

Kick-off Event: TV Series and the Public Memory of Colonia Dignidad. An interdisciplinary Conversation & Screening about the German-Chilean TV Series “Dignity”
Moderation: Holle Meding (Berlin)

Roundtable with:
María Elena Wood (Santiago de Chile), Creator and Executive Producer, Wood Producciones
Andreas Gutzeit (Berlin), Headwriter and Executive Producer, Story House Productions
Stefan Rinke (Berlin)

Welcome and Introduction:

Simone Lässig (Washington DC)
Stefan Rinke (Berlin)

Roundtable: Any Resemblance to the Past is pure Coincidence?
Moderation: Mónika Contreras Saiz (Berlin)

Andreas Gutezeit (Berlin), Story House Productions
Juan Camilo Ferrand (Miami), TV Scriptwriter – “Pablo Escobar, El Patrón del mal”
June Carolyn Erlick (Boston)
María Elena Wood (Santiago de Chile), Wood Producciones

Roundtable: Investigating historical fictions: a walk-through some digital, qualitative and quantitative methods
Moderation: Hannah Müssemann (Berlin)

Leonardo Pachón (Medellín)
Delia González de Reufels (Bremen)
Juan Piñón (New York)
Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed (Cardiff)
Claudia Lagos (Santiago de Chile)

History Transfer through TV Series and Telenovelas in Latin America: Ongoing research results of the GUMELAB Project
Moderation: Tatjana Louis (Bogotá)

Mónika Contreras Saiz (Berlin)
Hannah Müssemann (Berlin)
Holle Meding (Berlin)
Stefan Rinke (Berlin)

A Cross-Sector Dialogue between Academia, Entertainment and Society with “World Café” methodology

How can we develop strategies for a critical consumption of historical TV series? What would be specific points to include in a guide for critical media consumption?
Moderation: Enrique Uribe-Jongbloed (Cardiff) and Jimena Perry (New York)

How can telenovelas and TV-series that portray recent pasts, controversial and traumatic issues build a bridge to the political situation of the present?
Moderation: Hannah Müssemann (Berlin) and Edward Goyeneche-Gómez (Bogotá)

Telenovelas and TV series that focus on controversial and traumatic topics of the recent past can lead to the revictimization of affected individuals or the demonization of perpetrators. What can be strategies to deal with the victim-offender discourse in historical fiction?
Moderation: Claudia Lagos (Santiago de Chile) and Holle Meding (Berlin)

Can telenovelas and TV series that portray recent pasts and controversial and traumatic issues serve as pedagogical material?
Moderation: Tatjana Louis (Bogotá) and Mónika Contreras Saiz (Berlin)

Closing discusión