Films for social change- Beth Martin

Beth Martin

In the late 80’s I was a student at the New School for Social Research in New York pursuing a non-traditional degree titled Art, Culture and Society and taking such courses as the Blackness of Blackness, Art and Politics in Thatcher’s England, History of American Radicalism, Human Rights and the Politics of Violence in Latin America, and Sexuality and Representation. I remember fondly spending class time viewing and discussing such films as Tongues Untied, Daughters of the Dust, Young Soul Rebels, and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Those were the good old days when I had the fantastic opportunity to explore the intersections of gender, race, class, and, sexuality and how they are shaped by media, art, and culture. For whatever reason, as a white, middle class, and at the time heterosexually identified woman, from a politically right-wing family, I was filled with rage at social injustice and enamoured with the idea of political art. The New School, a university shaped by the commitment of artists and intellectuals, many of whom were exiled from Europe during the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, was the perfect place to be.

Now, over a decade and a half later, having been estranged from my early passions for the role of art and culture in social change, but still strongly committed to social justice, I’ve found myself at the Films of Desire event and very excited about the panel discussion ‘Films for Social Interventions.’

Bishakha Datta, documentary filmmaker and writer, and Joanna Kerr, former Executive Director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) now working independently, presented particularly salient points regarding the role of film in social change. Having been a feminist activist and member of AWID for many years, I was looking forward to hearing Joanna, who has contributed so much to the global movement for women’s human rights. I had become disillusioned with the work I had been doing for the past several years, primarily in conflict-affected settings addressing war-related violence against women, which can leave one feeling bleak about the possibilities for positive social change.

I was equally intrigued by what I had learned about Bishakha’s work as Program Director with Point of View, an organisation that aims to promote women’s perspectives through media, art and culture, particularly because of my earlier interests in art, culture and social change. The presentations by Bishakha and Joanna explored both the possibilities as well as the challenges of using film for the purpose of social interventions.

Joanna posed interesting questions: How does change happen? What is the role of film in influencing change in relations, actions and behaviours? She highlighted the fact that several recent films have had tremendous impact in both changing public opinion as well as policy at the national and international levels. Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient

Truth are perhaps the most notable in the global scope of their impact. The Accused, which Joanna described as highly contentious, depicted a graphic scene of Jodie Foster being gang-raped in a bar. This film had a tremendous impact in that people re-interrogated their understandings of violence against women. Such films as Brokeback Mountain and Transamerica 2 have created space for the mainstream to, in an era inhospitable to gay rights, engage with these issues. Despite these successes, she underscored that film is often under-utilised by social movements with organisations relying not only on two-dimensional media such as the dreaded newsletter (which Joanna is on a mission to eradicate!) but also, and perhaps worse, propaganda which does not allow space for dialogue around issues and results in compromised credibility.

As an example of how a social change organisation can utilise digital media at a low cost, Joanna presented a short digital film created by AWID about women’s visions for the future to be presented at a conference of about 1800 feminist activists, most of whom were the talking heads of organisations. The film, which was a dynamic series of brief interview clips with and images of feminists worldwide, was an example of how issues can be presented in an engaging and thought-provoking way, rather than the usual bland rhetoric of an activist on a soap box. The purpose of the film was to provide an opportunity for voices, which wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to be heard at the event, to create debate through documentary film and provide a structure for conference participants to engage meaningfully with each other afterwards.

What an inspiration – as an activist, one does not need a filmmaking degree to create affordable and effective films for the purposes of communicating ideas and promoting dialogue. Just as I was about to get lost in my fantasies of going back in time – returning to past jobs, tearing up all of the really crappy so-called behaviour change communication materials we had struggled to create for the purposes of eradicating(!) child marriage or domestic violence – and putting digital video cameras in the hands of the communities where we worked, and posing relevant questions, Bishakha reminded us of some cautionary tales.

While roles, responsibilities and resulting intentions of social workers or rights activists and filmmakers or artists may differ, it is important to reflect on some of the concerns, challenges and contradictions that arise when considering the role of art or film in influencing social change. Bishakha reminded us of the darker legacy of political art – for example, Leni Riefenstahl made extremely powerful films that could be seen as aesthetically stunning, but they were commissioned by Hitler and glorified Nazi Germany. More recently, in India, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a Hindu fundamentalist organisation of which the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) is a political ally, commissioned a film, Bhaye Prakat Kripala, which is another example of powerful Hindu nationalist propaganda.

Regardless of the politics of a film, Bishakha raised a critical question as a filmmaker: Am I treating my audience as adults or children? In propaganda the filmmaker does not allow viewers to think for themselves, but rather asserts a particular point of view by presenting only information that reinforces the propaganda. In her introductory remarks, Bishakha spoke of the tension between her two ‘identities’ – documentary filmmaker and director of an organisation that uses media, art and culture to create social change. Certainly, as a filmmaker she is not interested in wearing the cloak of the propagandist. ‘I resist placing myself in the box of a film maker who works explicitly for social change. I make films to express what I feel about something, to tell a story that interests me.’ Yet, in her work with Point of View, she is very intentionally trying to promote social change through the use of film.

For the artist who is committed to social change, an exploration of the tensions between art and politics is necessary. Point of View has hosted the women’s film festival ‘Made by Women’ to promote women film makers’ visions and perspectives – clearly a political event. Bishakha and her colleagues struggle with the following questions while selecting the films: ‘What is it that we want to promote about women’s visions? Do we want to promote something that we ourselves feel? Do we want to showcase work that we feel is politically important but cinematically not significant?’ They have found that the best way to represent women’s visions is to showcase films that are cinematically significant. Otherwise, they run the risk of people coming and critiquing the work of women as second rate. It’s quite an interesting paradox that the political impact of the event is greater when the films are selected for their cinematic significance rather than their political message.

So then, can a film be interesting, tell a story, make us think, and possibly, in some measurable way promote change? Bishakha argues that film is a medium through which ideas are changed, and changing ideas contributes to social change – thus social change may be a by-product. And, the film maker does not necessarily have to begin with the intention of changing ideas. Indeed, there are numerous examples of films – powerful and moving – that do change the ways people think about themselves, their relationships and the world. While they may not result in large-scale shifts in policy or public opinion, they do have an impact. In addition to the films mentioned by Joanna, Bishakha offered Babel as an example of a film that encourages people to think about clashes of cultures and Manjuben Truck Driver which challenges the audience to reconsider gender norms. Films of Desire screened countless films that prompted me, and I’m sure many other participants, to reflect, interrogate, and, yes, change our attitudes, beliefs, behaviours. Certainly a prerequisite for social change is transformation at the individual level, so one attitude at a time, films do make an impact. With the increasing accessibility of digital video and information and communication technologies, more and more people are making films which are receiving increased viewership through the internet. Bishakha argues that putting video into the hands of people who would otherwise not have the opportunities for their voices to be heard is perhaps one of the most positive developments regarding creating films for social change in the past decade. She highlighted the work of Video Sewa, an organisation based in Ahmedabad, which has done just that. Working with a union of women working in the informal sector, Video Sewa has undertaken such interesting projects as making a film to communicate the concerns of workers in the Ahmedabad Municipal Market. The video provided a unique opportunity for the women to voice their concerns to the Municipal Commissioner of Ahmedabad. Such projects do not require an outside filmmaker to come in, but rather the video cameras are in the hands of the women themselves.

Being interviewed and video recorded by a peer is very different than by an outsider. The relationship is to a great extent equalised and more likely based on pre-established trust.

Again, if only I could go back in time to the camps of displaced persons in Darfur – where so often the foreign journalist sweeps into town seeking to interview a rape survivor! Indeed such video projects based on self-representation have tremendous potential. Again, with greater access to the media and the expanding virtual world comes greater potential for increased viewership (although I can’t say the camps for displaced people in Darfur are not home to internet cafes). One of the challenges for film makers and activists is reaching a wider audience. In terms of films for social change, perhaps the problem is that we’re falling into the trap of creating propaganda rather than film that challenges people to think without forcing rhetoric on them. Bishakha stated, ‘I don’t think we can create social change unless we’re talking outside the circle of the converted.’ These points are reinforced by Joanna who stated that activists, by tending to create propaganda, limit their scope to people already within a particular movement and that communicating across movements is necessary.

Although the Films of Desire event itself was communicating within a particular circle, with a group of people already open to challenging social norms about gender and sexuality and how it is represented in film, I do think it succeeded in contributing to social change. The individuals present were likely to have changed ideas and will have returned to their respective countries and work sharing their experiences with others.

On a larger scale, in the short two years that I have been in India, I’ve certainly noticed shifts in public discourse on gender, sexuality and representation. There have been a number of film festivals and other cultural events that have created space for the voices of sexual and gender minorities that have resulted in a ripple effect through print, television and radio media. Although there is the rising tide of nationalist and fundamentalist ideologies reacting to and resisting these ripples here as well as in my country and the rest of the world, there are also thriving opposition movements.

The kind of change that Films of Desire may have been promoting, although we may not always see it, is taking place. And on a personal level, I’ve been reunited with my old passion for exploring and transforming multiple oppressions through art and culture, and that passion has been enriched by the shared experience of viewing and discussing powerful films from South and Southeast Asia.

Beth Martin received a B.A. in Art, Culture and Society from the New School for Social Research (New York, USA) and a Master’s in Social Welfare from the University of New England (Maine, USA). She has over ten years of experience working on issues of gender equality, sexual rights, violence, immigration, and mental health in Sudan, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and the United States with local, national and international organisations. Currently she is the Programme Manager of the Expanding Discourses Initiative at CREA in New Delhi, India.