Now, ask a mother in L.A. or Manhattan if film has the power to save the world and she’d probably answer, “Of course,” and be thinking how film can educate those silly, simpleminded Midwesterners and Christian Rightists about how a modern, liberal society should function. I’m admittedly one of these, though I did live for a stretch in Jonesboro and … well, OK, they could use a little less repression.
Finally, ask any American — on the coasts, in the South, in the North — what they hear every time they even poke two toes into the ocean, and they’ll say the theme to Jaws. Thank you, Steven Spielberg. Thanks to you, a few hundred million people (and I) can’t swim in the ocean anymore without visualizing ourselves as human-shaped chum.
That’s because film, on occasion, can tap into something atavistic in human nature, whether it’s fear (Jaws), anger (Dr. Strangelove), or the parental instinct to preserve one’s offspring (most documentaries about how the world is going to end in the next 2.4 minutes) and, as a result, alter how we think. Considering the roller coaster that’s been the Bush Jr. Administration — an exhausting five-year ride filled mostly with steep drops and terrified screams — it’s no surprise that the last few years have offered a whole string of films whose aims have been, in some way, to change the world.
While the current trend may have started in 2004 with Fahrenheit 9/11, last year we got flicks like Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now, Syriana, and Good Night, and Good Luck, while this summer we’ve been treated to Al Gore’s chronicle of global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, and Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? Shocking, too, is the fact that these films are all making money, actually finding an audience for their “liberal” politics in a nation that’s swung so far to the right in the last six years that the label “liberal” is almost as insulting as being called a babyseal clubber.
Nonetheless, Dean Devlin, the producer behind Electric Car, insists, “Our primary responsibility `as filmmakers` isn’t to change the world. It’s giving an audience something worth seeing.” As guests on a recent Los Angeles Film Festival panel, he and other “liberal” filmmakers discuss how they view film’s role in world affairs. Among his co-panelists is Thank You For Smoking writer and director Jason Reitman, who jokingly announces, “I look forward to saving the world with my movies. It will be fun.”
Also present are Abu-Assad, Paine, documentarian Meena Nanji (View from a Grain of Sand), and Harry Thomason, who co-directed The Hunting of the President and produced the Democratic National Conventions in 1992 and 1996. Though their opinions all vary, none of the panelists diverge from group consensus as significantly as Abu-Assad, whose Paradise Now — which follows two newly recruited Palestinian suicide bombers as they struggle with their decision — was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar this year.
“I didn’t make my film to change anybody, because I don’t believe you can change the world,” Abu-Assad says. “The world is much too big to be changed by film.” The director is more interested in exploring characters not usually found onscreen; like Devlin, he wants primarily to tell a story. “If films change anything, it changes for the worst,” he adds. “For example, after my film was made, the killing continues. It’s not stopping.”
Thomason is quick to jump in. “I think his film has changed a lot of minds,” he says in his strong Arkansas accent. “It might not have changed the world yet, but eventually it will cross that line.” “I don’t know if film can change the world, but I know many films have changed my world,” Nanji says. “Communally, I guess that changes the world because it changed how people think.”
And that’s just it. Film has the power to change how one person thinks, and, like a — God, I can’t believe I’m about to use this metaphor — pebble thrown into a pond, the ripples continue to expand. Brokeback Mountain, a film that few people thought would take off beyond its specialty market, is a wonderful example of this potential. It became a phenomenon that inspired curiosity, and then conversation, in environs that would have never imagined devout love possible in a homosexual relationship. Hell, even my bigoted mom, who used to quote Gingrich’s “Adam and Steve” comment all the time, is now advocating a person’s right to be happy with whomever they wish.
That’s because, as Thomason points out, “Everyone gets their information from film.” Paine found that to be true regarding electric-car assassins General Motors and Big Oil. As he sees it, the media failed the American people. “When the media didn’t tell the story, we stepped in to tell it,” he says. “I hope the documentary gives people the information to make better choices.”
If Fahrenheit 9/11 accomplished anything, it’s that it reminded filmmakers that you can’t beat people over the head with a message. If you intend to educate, bludgeoning is not as effective as good old competent storytelling. “If you want to change things, you have two problems,” Abu-Assad explains. “One, you think they are absolutely wrong and you’re absolutely right. Two, they have films of their own doing the same thing you are.” That’s something Michael Moore never figured out. But, hey, just because one film failed to alter reality, or at least the 2004 election, that doesn’t mean film can’t, as it has always managed to do, change the world. Or, at least, my mother’s opinion.