Sunday, 9 August 2009

A Response to the Kid In The Front Row: What impact can we have as filmmakers? And with impact, do we have responsibility?

Over on his blog, the Kid In the Front Row has written a post entitled 'What impact can we have as filmmakers? And with impact, do we have responsibility?', in which he asks the following questions:
What is the maximum impact we can have as filmmakers? Can films really change lives? Can they make us act for social change? Can they change us for the better?
As the post has been written to encourage debate, I thought that I would write a post detailing some of my own thoughts in reply to these questions, as well as commenting briefly on The Kid's own post.

Essentially, The Kid's answers to these questions (as I understand them) focus on how films can change people in the sense of our political and social ideas, or, in other words, the way that film can affect us (or indeed manipulate us) to change our views in a somewhat 'practical' sense. To put it another way, The Kid is, whether intentionally or not, discussing the role of film as propaganda. Personally, I do not believe that audiences are necessarily susceptible to indoctrination (for want of a better word) through cinema, but I do believe that 'campaign' films can be dangerous if they go unchecked, especially when they offer very biased views. To take a recent example, there was a Channel Four documentary which put forth the idea that climate change doesn't exist, a view which was readily adopted verbatim by several people I know. So here is a practical example of a film (or, in this case, a television documentary) having a direct impact on people and explicitly influencing their views in life, and therefore their behaviour. As I said before, however, I don't necessary believe that films themselves have the power to change people outright, and I would suggest that the people I know who are now so rigid in stating their denial of climate change probably had this belief before seeing the programme. (If they didn't, surely the most the programme would have done would have been to spur them into conducting further research? Though perhaps I am overestimating the strength of the human spirit in my belief that people cannot be so easily influenced!).

For my own answers to these questions, I would take a slightly different approach, and I hope it's not an approach which is at odds with the original questions. To me, film can have a huge impact on our lives in a way which, perhaps, can be referred to as spiritual. I'm not sure that spiritual is a great term for it, just as practical probably isn't the right term to discuss the effects that I've spoken about above but hopefully these terms, at the least, make sense in the context of this post. So, what do I mean by spiritual? Well, I'm thinking of the way that certain films – such as, say, those by Bergman, Tarkovsky, or Haneke – make us think about the world around us, and our approach towards it (for instance, by exploring responses to violence, religion or grief). By making us think about a diverse range of philosophical and ethical concerns, these filmmakers provoke responses which change us as people, and they do so not by propaganda, but by provoking reactions and making us look inside ourselves in order to find new facets of understanding about our existence and our approach towards the world in which we live. In this way, I would argue, filmmakers can have a huge impact on their viewers, and can indeed change them 'for the better'.

So the difference between what I see as essentially propaganda, and what I see as films which can provoke change within us, is that the former promotes a message and tries to persuade us that this message is right, whereas the latter ask us questions which open us up to our own responses and allow us to find our own 'meaning', our own 'message'. As both a filmmaker and a film fan, I would suggest that the latter is a far better – and more morally responsible – way to elicit change within the viewer.

Before finishing, I'm aware that many would argue that a filmmaker such as Haneke should fall into the former category and not the latter, but I would respond that although his films often have a very clear authorial 'message' to them, they convey this message in such a way as to provoke the viewer into her or his own response to the message, rather than simply expecting the viewer to soak it up wholeheartedly and unquestioningly.

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The Kid In The Front Row said...

Thanks for responding is such detail to my post.

What is it in my original topic that made you think I was talking about Propaganda? I hate to think that's how I come across, because I can think of nothing worse.

I am more interested in films like, as mentioned, 'Shawshank Redemption' -- that give hope and belief to people they may not have had previously. And I also made a point of 'the problem for most documentarians who touch upon politics and issues, is that they are tainted by their persuasions. They are an extension of a journalist, or a politician; they're just part of the cycle of partisan politics'

I want to steer clear of that, I'd hate for films to preach, maybe I came across wrongly.


PS: Your links to my blog at the beginning of your article are incorrect, It'd be great if you could fix them!

Alex Barrett said...

Hi Kid,

Thanks for the comment. I've fixed the links – don't know what went wrong, sorry about that!

To make myself clear, I didn't mean to imply in any way that you were in favour of propaganda in cinema; merely that you were discussing it in answer to your own questions. To me, saying that 'the problem for most documentarians who touch upon politics and issues, is that they are tainted by their persuasions. They are an extension of a journalist, or a politician; they're just part of the cycle of partisan politics' is essentially the same as saying that 'the problem for most documentarians is that they make propaganda'. You mention Michael Moore in your post, and although there is much I admire about him, I think it's very important to recognise that his films are little more than very cleverly constructed propaganda pieces. For me, Michael Moore is only one step removed from, say, Leni Riefenstahl (obviously the step being to the left). I haven't yet seen 'Wall-E', but it sounds like you had the reaction you did to it because you felt like it was effectively environmental propaganda. Propaganda is everywhere in cinemas these days, and sometimes it's just more overt than others.

In terms of your comments on 'Shawshank Redemption', I have to admit it's been too long since I've seen it to respond effectively, but I don't remember it having impact on me whatsoever (hence why it's been so long since I've seen it). It sounds to me, however, like you are effectively saying that it's a film which also affects people on a 'spiritual' level. You skimmed over it rather quickly in your post to move onto the documentary section, hence why I focused on that stuff in my reply.

Hope that answers your query about my post, and apologies if you feel I've misrepresented you.


ArtSparker said...

I would have thought the question was simply the the old question of where art belongs in the world, simply applied to a specific medium. What does it bring?