7 film and TV series set in the exciting world of municipal government

Something deep and dark. Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective. Image: HBO

One of the big TV hits of 2014 has been True Detective, a beautifully shot HBO series which saw Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey investigate a string of murders over a period of 17 years. In between all the police procedural stuff, the series explores themes such as family, faith, and the nature of the universe.

The reason we bring this up is that, as it turns out, season 2 is going to be about municipal transport policy:

“According to a breakdown obtained by TheWrap, the second season of “True Detective” will follow the death of a corrupt city manager of a fictional California city who's found brutally murdered amid a potentially groundbreaking transportation deal that would forever change freeway gridlock in the state.”

Thrills! Terror! Traffic management!

Actually, the new series, which looks set to star Vince Vaughn, has a very good chance of being awesome. As unlikely as it might sound, TV and film about local government has a surprisingly good track record. Here are seven more examples.

Spin City (ABC, 1996-2002)

Sitcom set in New York City Hall. Started off as a rather good vehicle for Michael J Fox, as the smart young deputy mayor; later became a substantially less good vehicle for Charlie Sheen as his replacement, and promptly got itself cancelled. Includes such exciting municipal plot lines as a subway train breaking down, pollution in the city’s rivers, and garbage collectors going on strike.

Our Friends in the North (BBC Two, 1996)

Possibly the best television drama ever to be largely about British social housing policy, Our Friends stars an amazing cast led by Christopher Eccleston and Daniel Craig (pictured), and takes in everything from police corruption to the Zimbabwean boycott to the rise of New Labour. It also features some amazing haircuts.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988 movie)

Gritty political thriller about a corruption scandal in which car companies buy up Los Angeles' streetcar network, purely so they can rip it up, thus forcing the public to buy more cars. Also features a cartoon rabbit.

The Wire (HBO, 2002-08)

Without wanting to sound like one of those people, The Wire is one of the few things in life that's as good as everyone says it is. Over five seasons it explores many aspects of the decline of the American city (policing, education, labour relations, the media). From season three onwards a major character is politician Tommy Carcetti (Aidan Gillen, pictured), who successfully runs for mayor, only to learn that the job is actually amounts to "eating shit all day long, day after day, year after year". This show basically offers a comprehensive explanation of why nothing works.

Chinatown (1974 movie)

Classic noir starring Jack Nicholson, which begins with the murder of Los Angeles' chief water engineer. One of the few films of the genre which is fundamentally about water desalination.

Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009-present)

Mockumentary about municipal officials working in a pseudonymous department in the fictional Indiana town of Pawnee. Contains a plot about turning a big hole into a nice new park. The series made a star of Chris Pratt (pictured), who's since sold out and lost a load of weight, mostly so he could appear in movies.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (WB/UPN, 1996-2003)

Okay, it's mostly not about municipal government at all, it's about vampires and teenagers. But the villain in season three is the mayor of Sunnydale (Harry Groener), who's secretly plotting his "ascension" – that is, his transformation into a giant snake-like demon who feeds on people. Remember that, next time Boris Johnson or Bill de Blasio appear on your TV screen.

Images credits: Our Friends in the North: BBC; The Wire: HBO; Parks and Recreation: NBC.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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