Can movies cause political change?
Covering how to found a country and the devastating power of the ordinary.
In the light of recent and possible future events I have been doing some soul-searching about my filmmaking. The not-so-gradual rise of the far right, both in Europe and America, has lead me to question whether there’s more I could be doing as a filmmaker to stand up and be counted. I’m not a documentarian, so I’m just going to talk about fiction. Ken Loach has provided a shining example of the power of dramatic political filmmaking with I, Daniel Blake, but is that film being watched outside of a liberal echo chamber? So how best to make your political views heard? And can any art really make a political difference?
An August night in 1830: the citizens of Brussels crowd into the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie for a performance of the French opera La muette de Portici. Following an aria called ‘Sacred love of the Fatherland’, members of the audience rise to their feet and take to the streets. A riot ensues. They occupy government buildings. A revolution grows which leads to the founding of the country we now call Belgium.
Bucharest, 1985. The regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu reluctantly sanctions a production of Hamlet – they’re told that they can’t ban Shakespeare: the world will laugh at them. This production runs for years and become a focus for opposition to the regime. In 1989 the stage Hamlet, Ion Caramitru, leads real soldiers in a battle to take the state TV station. He announces to the nation “We’re free, we’ve won. Don’t shoot anyone. Join us.” He goes on to become a minister in the government that followed the fall of the dictator.
…Okay, no stage production can topple a regime from a standing start – but in both cases above, drama acted as a key focus for the emotions that led to national change. Take note, producers of Hamilton…
But does the stage hold a monopoly on provoking social change? What about the big screen?
In 1941 Preston Sturges made a movie Sullivan’s Travels that discussed the place of politics in the movies. John Sullivan, a successful young director determined to make ‘a difference’, wants to film social-conscience novel ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ (title later nicked by the Coens). Determined to make his film as true to real experience as possible, he travels across America as a hobo – a sort of ‘method’ director. Counter to his expectations, his journey teaches him that he can best serve the downtrodden by making them laugh so that they can forget their troubles.
Sturges’s view is humbling, possibly excessively so – is that the best we can do? Is it a bit conservative to expect the arts to be nothing more than entertainment, to keep the populus distracted?
Other directors see it differently. At the start of his career, Ken Loach made a film called Cathy Come Home, which led the first open discussions of the issue of homelessness and caused the foundation of Britain’s biggest charity for the homeless: Shelter. Jonathan Demme’s movie Philadelphia is widely credited with turning round the opinion of the American public on AIDS and leading to greater acceptance of homosexuality, and Ava DuVernay’s film about Martin Luther King Selma has fed directly into the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign.
We can cause change.
And it’s not just movies that play the art-house cinemas of major cities: blockbusters have provoked political change too. The Day After Tomorrow made American audiences get real about global warming (even though the movie was pretty shaky on the facts itself). And, as well as being no. 1 in the box office, Braveheart helped lay the groundwork for Scottish devolution, the film being oft cited by former first minister Alex Salmond (despite the movie being one of the least accurate historical movies of all time).
Of the films I’ve mentioned so far Braveheart had the most tangible and lasting political effect, and yet of all those films it was the one with the least serious political agenda. Sure, it defends the rights of an underdog people to defy the oppressive rule of foreign powers… but so does Galaxy Quest. Braveheart was made as entertainment. Bringing about Scottish devolution was not in the mind of screenwriter Randall Wallace. But then, Shakespeare didn’t write Hamlet to help free the people of Romania from tyranny. Maybe we can no more control the political impact of our work than we can guarantee its box office success.
What is certain is that it helps if our work is seen by a wide audience. In a democracy depth of understanding doesn’t change anything, weight of numbers does.
But demonising the oppressor and having your hero shout “freedom!” very loud are not the only ways popular cinema can make a political point. You can be slyer than that. Starship Troopers contains a LOT of political statements, but I was most struck by its portrayal of women in the military. In an America that was slowly and reluctantly allowing its women to serve, the film looks to a future where men and women serve as absolute equals…
And it made that point most powerfully by not making it at all.
The film simply shows men and women fighting side by side, with no difference in treatment in a truly gender-blind army. Nothing was made of this: it was assumed to be natural in its science fiction universe. Taking ‘a thing that worries people’ and showing it not being a problem was a powerful message.
On a day-to-day level, I think this is where movies have their political power: through the assumptions they make and the reality they show. Verhoeven was being knowing in the assumptions he presented – he was making a point; however we all reveal our own assumptions whenever we tell stories. What we consider to be heroic behaviour and what we demonise, what speaks to us as justice and what we consider to be unfair: our attitudes shape our fictional universes, whether we mean them to or not. Look at the casual misogyny and racism in some classic movies of the past and you’ll see how blind the filmmakers were to their assumptions and those of their society (we’ll prove to be no different).
And these assumptions can have a cumulative effect. Casual homophobia in one tacky genre movie is unpleasant but not particularly damaging; if casual homophobia is found in most movies then people start to think “these are the values of our society – it’s okay to think this way”.
Happily the same is true of positive values. Imagine a movie where we discover half way through that our protagonist is Muslim. Perhaps we see them being called away due to some emergency while at Friday prayer. Imagine that this is the only reference to their faith in the whole movie – nobody has given them a hard time for their religion, and their faith doesn’t dramatically influence their behaviour for good or ill. The one reference to their religion was simply there to demonstrate that whatever twist had happened in the plot, it was important enough to pull them away from worship. Normal life has been disrupted: being a Muslim is normal. A point has been made even though nothing has been said.
In conclusion, if you want to follow Ken Loach and tackle an issue head on: please do. Bring all your heart and art to bear on making us feel the injustice, make us angry. You may not reach a lot of voters directly, but if you activate your audience they will activate others. Not everyone who rioted in Brussels that night had been in the opera house.
If you have the means to make a blockbuster you’re probably not following this blog, but if you are, I say: pack any positive political message you can into your movie.
To everyone else I say: check your assumptions as best you can, and remember that being one extra voice in the choir is no bad thing. The more we show understanding and belief in a common humanity, the more we undermine those who sow division.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2016
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge