Can Films Really Change the World?

Can film change the world

There is a strong belief in our industry that films really do have the power to change the world. I’d been guilty of this myself up until last year when Matthew interviewed critically acclaimed film maker Marc Isaacs.

When asked about his thoughts on journalistic documentaries he commented, “most of those films are not cinematic in any way and they exist just to communicate a message. They are made usually by people who have the foolish belief that films can change the world and the money comes from wealthy guilty people who are probably destroying the world with their business practices and then they want to give back”. I think there is a hell of a lot of truth in Isaac’s words which Jeremy Paxman incidentally echoed after he retired from the BBC.


Where does this belief come from?

Hitler in Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, 1935)

Hitler in Triumph of the Will (Riefenstahl, 1935)

The propaganda film has been a vital tool throughout the history of cinema. Using cinematically manipulative sounds and images to sway the people in a particular direction, winning their so called ‘hearts and minds’. No film is more exemplary of this than Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl’s cinematic vision and understanding of the power of montage is enough to send chills down your spine when you consider this film was commissioned by one of the world’s most notorious megalomaniacs.


What about today’s society?

Are we more intelligent and savvy as an audience nowadays? Debatable I know, but I think as a whole, yes we are. Think about the election campaign films this year. Cringe worthy I’m sure you’ll agree, even though the propaganda techniques used here are actually informed by studies of how people think and react in modern day Britain. It has a lot to do with the fact that we are a lot more switched on to the techniques used in film now compared to 70 years ago. And if you feel that you’re not, let Charlie Brooker bring you up to speed:

As an audience, we’re becoming increasingly bombarded by propaganda of all kinds in our everyday lives. Ads are king in this day and age, and there’s an unbelievable amount of money invested into their ability to ‘convert’. The thing is, ad companies are continually researching new ways to reach us on a deeper level and effectively infiltrate our consciousness. Remember Cadbury’s £6.2 million Gorilla Collins? There wasn’t even a chocolate in sight, but everyone was talking about it.

Cadbury's Gorilla campaign (Cabral, 2007)

Cadbury’s Gorilla campaign (Cabral, 2007)


Where does film fit in?

For the dedicated film maker, the most important aspect of a piece of work is in its ability to connect with a particular audience. Obviously this is the case for almost anything that requires an exchange of money. You have to make it worth while for your customers. Sorry for sounding so business like, but it’s the common denominator here.

However connecting with an audience is different to changing the world. I think a lot of film makers have at some point been deluded in thinking that ‘I want this film to help stop child abuse’ or ‘Something has to be done about homelessness’. A film can become possessed by a singular, overly generalised mission to make people act upon a message. In reality, life is complex and no outcome is determined by one single thing.

Compare Laurent Achard’s ‘La peur, petit chasseur’ to any film about domestic abuse by The Rural Media Company and you’ll know what I mean.

Personally, I connect with a film like La peur, petit chasseur because of its sincerity. It has a genuine interest and insight into a specific world at that given time. Just like with advertising, if I feel someone’s trying to convert me with some holier than thou message, I tune out. I’ll stay with a film as long as it doesn’t take me for a fool. A film like this has an after taste, leaving me to consider what I’ve just seen for the next few days. Anything less will leave me to forget about everything within a few hours.


The will of the mob

A single person can be incredibly powerful if s/he has a legion that will support them to the bitter end (and beyond). Can a film achieve the same? Well a film’s true power is limited to its duration, be it 1 minute or 180 minutes. An audience of millions can be totally agreeable to the ’cause’ while they’re engaged in watching.

However, their opinion can be completely reversed fairly quickly simply by the passing of time. Take the countless number of Bollywood films that deal with love marriages. People love them, but have they eliminated any prejudices? Absolutely not. By the time everyone is out of the cinema, it’s no longer relevant.

Veer Zaara (Chopra, 2004)

Veer Zaara (Chopra, 2004)


Campaigning for change

In order for a film to change the world (however minuscule a portion), it must continue to be relevant to an audience once it has finished. For me, a campaign is the only way this will ever work. A film needs to be accompanied by a myriad of other components delivered over a longer period of time to even begin to make any kind of change.

But then is it really the ’cause’ you’re interested in or just marketing your film (Of course there’s always a happy medium). Take an election campaign. These things are long and relentless onslaughts of people crying out for attention yelling, ‘please vote for me so I can have a promotion and maybe I’ll help you at some point… maybe not’. And then once said person has been elected, they’ve got to continue to convince you and millions of others that they made the right decision (no further comment on that one).


A new world for film makers

social media icons
So how can a film maker emulate an election campaign? As we all know, the internet really did change the world. Companies and organisations were soon jumping on it’s two major components; blogging and social media, utilising it to great effect. As the internet is now an integral part of nearly everyone’s life, it’s easy to see how it can be used to infiltrate our minds and alter our thinking.

Through social media, film makers (and studios for that matter) can build and even maintain audience engagement around the subject of their film allowing the ‘message’ to have a much further reach.

Tweeting, facebooking, blogging and whatever the hell else you use, can all become powerful tools to continue the conversation your film may have started. The thing is, the power of the film is now redundant and everything lies in the power of the internet. Yes you can have viral films, but if we’re honest they are often flash in the pan moments and even 10 million views on YouTube can be forgotten about in 10 minutes.


Can a film change the world?

You may feel no closure from my answer but… yes, no and maybe. I think it’s definitely possible given the right circumstances, the right approach and the right talent. Ultimately though, if a film’s intention is to change the world, it most certainly won’t. If however, it aims to sincerely deal with and comment on a particular subject matter, change may come as a by-product. Otherwise be prepared to go the whole hog and spend more time convincing people to change than making your film.

Any examples of films that actually did change the world? Comment below.


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Manjeet S. Gill


Film maker and writer for the Black Country Cinema collective. My work often revolves around Asians living in contemporary Britain. Main influences include Ozu, Koreeda and Hou.

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