Saturday 8 August 2009

What impact can we have as filmmakers? And with impact, do we have responsibility?

I'm interested in whatever any of you might bring to this discussion -- be you a film director, a writer, a film-lover, someone who hates movies, or even someone who's never seen one. Whoever you are, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this. 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?.

There is a lot of room for films as pure entertainment. Most of Hollywood's output is exactly that. But sometimes, we can do more. Whether it's a little documentary making you aware about a new topic, or 'Shawshank Redemption' offering you hope-- ocassionally, a film can have an important and influential effect on you. But how big is that effect? On a personal level-- has a film ever changed the way you feel about a matter? Has it ever inspired you to do something that you wouldn't have done without it?

Documentaries, of course-- offer us a direct line into an issue. But what difference do they really make? For example, if you take a look at Michael Moore's documentaries (especially the older ones) they brought a lot of issues to a wider audience, for example gun laws-- and for a while, it looked like he could change America. In fact, he was certain he would with 'Fahrenheit 9/11' - but he didn't.

Of course, the problem for Michael Moore and indeed 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. Even in one of my favourite documentaries, 'When The Levees Broke' - Spike Lee can't steer clear of politics. NOR SHOULD HE HAVE, but my point is that as a result of that, some viewers are going to feel polarized.

As fictional writers and directors; we are able to have a dramatic impact on audiences. Right now, films like the Harry Potter Series and 'Twilight' are watched and loved by millions of teenagers worldwide. Do the makers of these films have only the need to entertain, or is there a responsibility regarding the message and intended meaning of these films?

I don't wish to get into a conversation about whether violence in films causes violence in the streets -- I'd like to skim past that and look at it more positively; and ask--- do we have an opportunity to change the world, for the better, with the stories we tell? And how should we go about doing that? It's a tricky thing to approach. I remember watching 'Wall-E' in the cinema and being completely turned off because of it's overt messages about the environment. Yet at the same time I've watched many other films and enjoyed the political intent behind them. Does it come down to personal taste, or is there a way of storytelling that is appropriate? Do we know where that line is?

It's also worth addressing the fact that It'd be a shame to swing too far in the way of responsibility and political correctness. A film with absolutely no violence, no jokes pertaining to race or sex or sexual-orientation would be boring. It wouldn't be real life. Is it wrong to have pure violence? Is it wrong for Tarantino to rewrite the most important death in modern history? What responsibilities do we carry as people putting our creative ideas into the open?

I often feel a limitation as a writer. It's a ghost role that says 'You will only have a certain amount of impact.' And I just wonder, does that limitation really exist? I am unsure if a film has ever changed the world. And even if it hasn't, I'd like to believe it can. I'd like to believe that motion pictures could fulfill a role that is different to that of leaders, policy makers, and celebrities.

I'd like to facilitate an open forum discussion through the comments section below. I hope we can better understand each other and discuss our beliefs in terms of the true power of movies. What impact can we have? And with that impact, do we have responsibilities?

Care to share?


  1. For myself, I want to tell stories. I’m attracted to stories. And as a filmmaker, I try to tell the best possible story with the means I’m given. If I get caught up in the message ahead of the story, then I’m failing as a storyteller, which is how I view myself. Storyteller first, filmmaker second.
    That being said, if my story deals with one man’s fight against Big Tobacco and I’m able to effectively tell my story of this man and the pressure he feels and the way it rips his life apart and take the audience on this journey that leaves them satisfied, then the issues I’m presenting about smoking and Big Tobacco’s practices will resonate more with an audience.

    The Inside Man is a great film. The issues of Big Tobacco and its influence over what used to be an untouchable news media industry are a part of the story. Not the whole story. But it stays with me, because I like the movie. The Terminal is one of the few Spielberg movies that I’m not crazy about and it’s because I felt the message of the movie overtook the story. I read once that Spielberg said the movie was meant to be a love letter to America after the 9/11 attacks, which is admirable and I’ve no problem with, but that intent overtook the story being told and made it less effective.

    Now that I’ve made the case for not worrying about a message and make sure you tell your story first, I will say that movies have changed many things in my life. It made me want to be a filmmaker. It pushed me to change to a vegetarian diet. (I was heading that way anyway) I became more energy efficient, not because Al Gore scared me, but because I’m responsible for two girls, my daughters, and I want them to live in a cleaner world. Movies have made me appreciate my life, my wife, my friend and my family.

  2. I think films can have a huge impact on people, but only temporarily. At a very basic level they can cheer you up. Watching something like 'Slumdog Millionaire' or 'It's a Wonderful Life' leaves me feeling happier, but not forever. I think films, as with other entertainment, are seen as a distraction and escape from reality, they are seperate from real concerns. A film as 'entertainment' would find it difficult to have a long lasting effect outisde of it's fictional bubble.

    It interests me that a film like 'United 93' can be a mixture of documentary and fiction. You know you're watching a piece of acted theatre, but it has a connection with real events that changes the perception you have of it. Personally I didn't think Paul Greengrass was making a politcal point but that film is open to many interpretations. It didn't change me but I felt more informed after I'd seen it.

  3. Very interesting topic Kid.

    I really do hope Movies or Documentaries can portray the very impact we want to make in this World - both as Film-makers and thus changing the attitudes and ideas of Film Audience (this includes World and Opinion Leaders)...that we could co-exist regardless of origins and solve conflicts without violence, and make this World a better place to live in if only we put in much, much more effort in reaching out to one another via mass communication - for us and the future World order.

    Let us look at the very reason Films exist objectively - they are here to entertain the mass audience. Whereas, Documentaries do provide, to a certain extend, a level of education in the hope for change. But even Documentaries are out to create revenue through sponsorships and TV Network operators buying their releases. Thus, they have become commercialized as well.

    Film-makers for both Films and Documentaries are answerable to investors too. Investors want to see returns. They are not trying to make the World a better place to live in for everybody by investing money to produce a Film. They are in it for the fame and monetary returns.

    In my humble opinion, Films and Documentaries will continue to be commercialized to cater for the mass audience for entertainment and Box Office results. Any positive influence in these movies would be minimal, at best. And movie audience will forget about them after the movie. The Pull factor for commercialized movie among the mass audience is still very much the central focus in the movie industry.

    I guess it is up to the individuals - Investors, Film-makers, Script Writers, Producers and the Audience (demand versus supply) to make the difference we want to make for this World to be a better place and have a positive impact on Social change.

    Why not independent movie making, where content is much more important? A-List celebrities might even want to be on it if the Script is real good, and at minimal fees and assistants for them (I remember Julia Roberts doing her very own make-up and hair in a certain movie as the budget was real tight, but the Script was good enough to attract her to take on the role and on a much much lower fee).

    I believe Independent Film making would be a good approach if we want to really make a better difference in this World. Writers have the freedom to write more meaningful Scripts for the betterment of Humanity, and Independent Film-makers and Producers film and produce these movies.

    Michael Moore may not have made the impact with "Fahrenheit 9/11", but he certainly did so with his subsequent Documentaries like "Sicko" and "Who Killed The Electric Car". With "Sicko" and "Who Killed The Electric Car", much research went into it before these two Documentaries were filmed by Michael Moore.

    Producers can seek out investors and movie celebrities that share the common vision as we do - to make a better World. All you need is a real good Script and a great Team that share the same common vision to make this World a better place. And after all, Independent Films are much more cheaper to produce, ain't it?

    Having stated all the above, in my humble opinion, the idea of Capitalism in our Society in certain critical sectors is digging its own grave. As E. B. White once said: "Capitalism; the trouble with the profit system has always been that it is highly unprofitable to most people." This led me to think that some of Karl Marx ideas are not that bad after all for the benefit of most people in some sectors of the Society.

    I hope my contribution helps to provoke Positive Critical Thinking for us all Film Fanatics for this particular topic.

    "The Boy Behind The Projector" a.k.a. Sam

  4. Hi. Thanks for the great post. I have responded to it over on my blog, here:

  5. what was the question?

  6. Alex, in his blog response, felt that I was perhaps erring towards films as Propaganda, and I just want to clarify that point in case anyone took it in that way. It's certainly not what I want, or hope for - but I can see how that meaning could be taken from a blog that talks about politicians and terms like 'Social Change.'

    I think I have a similar feel on the matter to Michael Field, who left the first comment, more than anything-- I want to tell a story. I like stories that can inspire, and can make people feel good. However, as Chris mentions, this is more than likely to be temporary.

    Strangely, I often find myself going back to movies, and TV shows-- I revisit them as much to regain their message, or even-- as weird as this sounds, to get back in touch with old friends. What I mean is, I just spent the day watching Frasier, which I love beyond words; and I think it has had a massive impact on me, and is quite possibly responsible for my interest in psychotherapy; it probably stems from the show in some way.

    I gain strength from my favourite films, and they help me get in touch with who I am, what my beliefs and values are. And that must be a good thing. But I would imagine the Writer or Director didn't set out with the intention of making people like me feel that way, which again comes back to what Michael says; which I take to mean; if you focus on the story, the rest will follow.

    Carlo, I would love to know more about Nigerian film, you seem to have a good knowledge about the topic. Please elaborate on it here if you think it could help aide the conversation, or perhaps you could guest blog an article for it on here one day soon.

    Anonymous/Sam/Boy With The Projector -- I agree, Independent Films are probably where it's going to happen. In Hollywood, I think they target a 'message' too broadly, and as Alex points to on his blog post, it's tantamount to propaganda.

    I kind of wish I'd written my original post a little differently. By focusing on documentaries, and talking about 'social change' -- I'm not really getting to the heart of what I hope for, but that's what is great about everyone discussing it here, it's helping me get to what I really feel.

    What really interests me -- is how films can inspire. Be in the wonderment we felt when E.T. and Elliot took to the skies, or the immense freedom we felt when Andy Dufresne broke through the walls in Shawshank Redemption. I think somewhere in all this escapism meets with inspiration; and I don't think we need to write everything off as meaningless.

  7. I like to think I can tell a good story. Weather that’s true or not is a different matter. But I write because I love doing it and I think others (my friends) like reading them (that or they just tell me they do to be nice). However I don’t feel that my work necessarily reflects issues in modern day Briton. I think sometimes people look into it to much. Which I’m not saying is a bad thing. However the majority of none movie goers go to be entertained. Not preached at (‘Passion of the Christ’ anyone?). People didn’t start recycling after ‘Wall-E’. I guess it’s only films like ‘Children of Men’ that can shock people enough to at least think about changing.
    Movies provoke emotions. But once your out of the cinema it’s different. It is only people like Michael Moore with ‘Sicko’ or Al Gore with ‘The Inconvenient Truth’ or even Morgan Spurlock with his ‘Super Size Me’ that can bring up key messages. But not necessarily change them.
    What I’m trying to get at is that people don’t change their lives because of a movie. Which could be seen as a sad thing. I didn’t stop eating McDonalds after ‘Super Size Me’, it just confirmed (if it needed conformation) that McDonalds is unhealthy. And it is sad to think people need a movie to tell them to be nice to people and recycle or anything like that. We should just do it.

  8. I agree with New Film Blog. "Movies provoke emotions. But once you're out of the cinema it’s different."

    When I'm sitting in a dark room watching a movie and I feel...something, anything...if I get emotional, it generally doesn't last the time it takes me to get home afterward. I might think about it a about how great/sad/etc the movie was, but then I go on about my business. Maybe sad, but true.

    If I want to relive those emotions, I watch the movie again.

    People change lives.

  9. No, I don't think films can change the world, I think they can help to raise awareness and they can inspire social culture, but that's it. And I'm ok with that, to be honest.

    For me, watching a film is pure escapism or, in the case of documentaries, a search for knowledge. I can happily watch a film over and over, just because it makes me feel good or because I love the story or the characters, not having once discerned any particular message or moral in it.

    Sometimes I think that's all people want. I don't think filmakers have any obligation to use the process in any deep and meaningful way, although obviously some have deep and meaningful stories to tell with lessons and morals to be learned, and that's good too.

    I also think there's sometimes a bit of an element of pretension in the film industry, sometimes it feels like we're being told to disregard films that don't have a deeper message as second rate and that we are somehow intellectually lacking for liking them. I don't hold with that and never have, I can get just as much value and enjoyment from something like "The Anchorman" or "Shaun of the Dead" as I can from films like "Philadelphia" and "Schindler's List"

  10. As filmmakers, we can have impact as much as any storyteller does. It influence people, but how can we quantify the impact that was caused by a story, or a film?

    Do filmmakers have responsibility? Of course, as any story teller does.