If “a picture paints a thousand words” as the saying goes, then the importance of cinema in shaping cultures and societies cannot be underestimated. We know that fictional cinema provides a much needed reflection on the world around us but most importantly, gives us a mirror to our inner selves, our prejudices and our misconceptions. It holds real power to unite and reconcile.
The representation of women, the less physically abled, ethnic minorities and homosexuality in cinema, across cultures and languages, has largely been inadequate. The wind is beginning to change, albeit slowly. Films from Hollywood like Black Panther in 2017 have moved discussions on race and TV shows like Big Little Lies which was produced by and starred Hollywood’s leading female actors are shifting perceptions on female-led production and storytelling – both have helped to empower communities and encourage conversations about roles within society as well as within the industry. Within Indian cinema, images of flamboyant costumes combined with lots of singing and dancing tend to prevail yet films like Kapoor & Sons and Margarita with a Straw explore themes of homosexuality and disability with sensitivity and A-list casts. They have brought much needed social debate to a mainly conservative society however, these themes remain controversial and far from the norm.
So despite this, can cinema change behaviours as well as mindsets? Most definintely.
The power of documentary cinema is seeing a resurgence (in the mainstream) as content is streamed on platforms like YouTube and Netflix and National Geographic is one of the most followed brands on Instagram with over 70 million followers. In the UK, we have seen the launch of the first dedicated documentary cinema in London. All demonstrate the opportunity that visual storytelling presents for those that are seeking to raise awareness and promote a greater consciousness.
Documentary cinema encourages viewers to move from being consumers of information to becoming citizens and activists that can enable change. Organisations like Films for Action share over 3000 videos on issues from Globalisation, Human Rights, Drug Prohibition and Climate Change and share content in different languages from English to Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish. It invites contributors to meet, to discuss and to mobilise to create positive and sustainable change for a better future.
The power of visual storytelling moved from the screen to parliamentary debate in 2017 with the BBC documentary series Blue Planet II. It created a national phenomenon when images of the world’s oceans were seen riddled with plastic waste, sea animals and birds with stomach’s filled with plastic to the point of malnutrition and the dying coral reefs that were once vibrant in colour, now faded. The multi-part documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough not only brought to life a crisis that we have failed to acknowledge, it brought it into our homes.
The response, now known as “the Blue Planet effect”, is creating a movement. The public outcry on social as well as mainstream media called for action – personal, national (policy and business level) and international (standards and best practice). Plastic waste has been debated in the UK House of Commons with policy promises from the UK Prime Minister and companies have come out (largely due to pressure from employees and consumers) and taken steps to cut or reduce their plastic usage. For example, McDonalds has announced that it will replace all of its plastic straws with paper ones in the UK by the end of 2018 – a significant move as it currently uses 1.8million per day in the UK alone.
The real question for those of us that work to create more inclusive and sustainable societies is how to recreate this for issues that have struggled to spark the public’s imagination and more importantly, protest. Melting polar icecaps haven’t been enough to encourage significant action on climate change and more locally, how do we make it everyone’s problem that 84 men take their own lives every week in the UK? From words to pictures and from pictures to action – that’s when we’ll create the world that we all want to live in.
As featured in Negolution: