There are a lot of things wrong with the film industry. A lot. There’s not enough diversity, there’s too much violence, Hollywood has run out of good ideas and so on and so on. Most of the complaints you’ll hear are valid, too. But there are good things to be noted about the film industry as well: namely, that films can use their powers for good as well as evil.
There are many films that can and have acted as powerful tools for social change, be they biographical films about revolutionary individuals, movies that provide social commentary, or documentaries that take an in-depth and upfront look at issues and end with calls to action. These films can be incredible learning tools and offer real-world impact instead of just providing a few hours of mindless escapism.
But before getting to the “why” and “how,” we have to start with the “what.” So what does “impact” mean in this sense? Basically, this refers to a film’s power to change its viewer’s perspectives and inspire actions that make some kind of difference in the world. There are several different types of change, but the two main kinds are “bottom-up” and “top-down.” Change that occurs from the bottom up starts with individuals and spreads as those individuals band together to demand change. Public awareness and engagement are the main tools of this type of change to spread knowledge, start discussions and get as many people involved as possible. Top-down change is the opposite. It begins with people in powerful positions that start campaigns or institute changes that trickle down to affect individuals. Top-down change can take the form of political, corporate or legal changes. The use of film can contribute to these changes, all of which can be effective.
Films that create these changes gain their power from the empathy they create, and fuel movements through storytelling methods that focus on certain individuals and places to bring their lives and situations to light. A report on the effect of documentaries and their impact on social change found that social action comes from the “journey” of empathy audiences experience while watching the film and that the key factors that contribute to this are effective storytelling, a campaign or strategy to maximize the impact, partnerships to contribute resources and expertise and a means of targeting a specific audience. These films don’t just cause change by reminding us of others’ suffering, but they also highlight extraordinary people who have made changes and remind audiences that they too can make a significant impact, whether it be in the form of a documentary or in a more fantastical fictional movie.
(Image Source: Billy Penn)
There are countless examples of these types of films that help to teach, inspire and create change, with classics such as Philadelphia (a 1993 film about HIV/AIDS and homosexuality), An Inconvenient Truth (a 2006 documentary about the impending dangers of climate change), Schindler’s List (a 1993 film about a man who protected hundreds of Jewish people in Europe during the Holocaust) and Blood Diamond (a 2006 documentary about the mining of gems in war-ridden countries to fuel ongoing conflicts with the money received from selling the jewels). All of these films spread information about an issue that eventually turned into concrete change, like the creation of organizations and the spread of information. These movies are also used as educational tools to further impact young minds that will grow up to enact the changes that inspired them in school.
Documentaries and films that provide social commentary are becoming more popular than ever in a time where everything is easily accessible and being uninformed is synonymous with sitting at the loser’s table. These films are pervasive in our society and their power puts us in the shoes of those who live in the other side of the world. The stories they share connect us with people we’ve never met and places we’ve never seen. They are universal, as are the movements they aid, and it is in this way that the film industry changes social landscapes.