Can films change the world?

It’s possible for a movie to have a positive impact on society and the individual.


Sophie Monks Kaufman


People are fearful of change. We seek reassurance in familiarity. We don’t want to feel the weight of a world tarnished by murder and rape and abuse and trauma on our shoulders. If there is hope for humanity then it will be through a chain of incremental lifestyle upgrades. These promotions tend to happen through encounters with people that inspire us through their example. For me, these people are storytellers – usually filmmakers.

I don’t believe that all films take place in an escapist bubble floating above the tangible world. Serious, bold and talented documentary filmmakers are alchemists that turn the data-driven reports of the global news agenda into human stories with roots in the existing power structures of the world.

Joshua Oppenheimer has made it his business to talk to and understand the complexes of men who have perpetrated genocide. At a Q&A following a screening of The Look of Silence, an audience member asked if he was close to understanding how men justify their brutal actions. An excerpt from his response: “Frighteningly, all of us know how people do this. We all have been involved with groups that are doing something that we all feel a bit uncomfortable with individually. We all know what it’s like to feel, ‘Well, if the group is doing this, particularly with the blessings of authority, it must be okay.’ That suspension of individual morality when we join a group, the lack of thinking critically, is a big part of it.”

We are not individuals independent of society. Intelligent progress depends upon finding a morally sound group to belong to, be that literal membership or spiritual fraternity. To run with Oppenheimer’s logic in the other direction: we need support. Among the guiding lights that uplift my thinking are the directors Mahdi Fleifel, Kim Longinotto and Joshua Oppenheimer. The films they make are very different, but each lets the gentle breeze of compassion ripple through subjects that would render many staccato with anger.

Mahdi Fleifel’s A World Not Ours finds anecdotal charm and wonderful characters among his family in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, letting the longing for home emerge quietly amid the rhythms of daily life. Kim Longinotto’s MO is to find female abuse survivors and tell their stories – Dreamcatcher is an absorbing cross-section of prostitution anchored by the outreach activities of a saintly and charismatic former sex worker named Brenda Myers-Powell.

The Look of Silence continues what Joshua Oppenheimer started with his 2012 film The Act of Killing, depicting the legacy of the 1965 Indonesian violent purge of ‘communists’ with storytelling as emotionally wrenching as it is intellectually aspirational.

LWLies spoke to these directors with a view to discovering how intentional you have to be to make a film with the power to create change. I wanted to know how much active philosophising is necessary to transcend reactionary work. I wanted to feel the personalities of the directors and glimpse the way that who they are informs what they do. The following interviews were conducted in a conversational, unstructured manner. The purpose of taking short extracts from these lengthy interviews was to highlight the universal wisdom that pulsed under our specialised conversations.

LWLies: Can films change the world?

Joshua Oppenheimer: Instantly I want to say that films must change the world in at least some ways or they’re not worth making. At the very least, even a fiction film, even if it has no effect on the participants – if it has no effect on the participants then there’s something wrong with it but it should certainly take the filmmaker to a place that she’s never imagined possible before she began. Ideally a film, also a non-fiction film is transformative for everybody involved and for the people who see it and, consequently, for the place where it’s made.

Does a movie actually have the power to instigate real political change?

Oppenheimer: Certainly but I’ll just say one more abstract thing because I don’t think those two things are separable. It’s not like there’s abstract, theoretical change and then concrete change. A work of art should function as a mirror or maybe even more of a kind of microscope or prism that forces us to confront some of the most mysterious and painful aspects of what we are and in doing so it makes possible conversations which weren’t possible before that. So, maybe I believe that a genuine work of art is like the child in The Emperor’s New Clothes who comes and says, ‘Look, the king is naked’ Everybody knew it but was too afraid to say it. But having said it, a whole new conversation becomes possible and that’s different from activism and different from journalism because it’s not about exposing new information, it’s actually about exposing what everybody already knew and didn’t want to look at or suspected but didn’t want to look at.

How selective should you be about what you’re shooting?

Kim Longinotto: The kind of films I want to make, Sophie, they’re not about, ‘Oh isn’t it terrible happening over there’ or ‘Isn’t that exciting.’ Every single time I was filming in Dreamcatcher it meant something to me. I’m sure we’ve all had experiences of rape. I’ve had experiences of rape but if you’ve not had experiences of rape, we’ve all had experiences of something that made us uncomfortable sexually. We’ve all had experiences of some kind of violence at some point – well most of us have. We’ve all felt that we are less than other people. We’ve felt insecure and we can look at Brenda and think, ‘Look, if she can do it, I can,’ When I feel depressed which is, you know, often I read the news and I look at stuff and I think, ‘Oh god, it’s all so dreadful’ and then I think, ‘Oh, come on, Kim. Don’t be such a wuss. Brenda. Look at her. She’s still going.’  I think it’s that she admitted it was so hard that made it inspiring for me. The fact that she’s struggling meant something to me.

How do you prevent a film from being angry?

Mahdi Fleifel: I think that love is the key. Really. And actually trying to be imaginative enough to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. And trying to wish for them what you’d wish for yourself. It’s not an easy thing. You really have to be courageous. You really have to be fearless to be able to embark on that mission. It’s not impossible. It’s within human nature. I’m not talking about anything abstract or utopic here. It’s in every human. There’s a choice to do good or bad so being angry is a choice. You can either choose to be compassionate and to love or you can choose to be angry.

Do you identify as a political filmmaker?

Fleifel: I don’t see myself and I would hate to see myself as a political filmmaker. I’m not really into politics. I don’t have any political statements or dogmas that I want to give anyone. I’m interested in people, in feelings and in the human soul. I’m not interested in politics. It always makes me laugh when I hear any politician say anything because they’re putting up a facade of dishonesty and just trying to sell people some good words. There’s a lot of statistics and facts and this and that and it has really nothing to do with the truth of things, with the reality of things. I’m looking for the human face. If you put a camera on a human face that has a lot to say then that will say more than any statistic or politician or anything words can say. Throughout anything that I’m trying to do, I’m really looking for the similarities in people. It’s so easy to point out the differences in everyone but that’s ego talking. That’s not the truth.

Should you let ideology motivate your filmmaking?

Oppenheimer: I don’t think that it’s ideology that’s motivating me at all. It’s just humanity, I mean a crime against humanity is a crime against all of us. When I started to film the genocide perpetrators and found to my horror that it was as though I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust only to find the Nazis still in power, I was in my late twenties. I had been living on a plantation, helping a group of plantation workers make their own film about their struggle to organise a union. I discovered that they were afraid to confront their bosses over the use of a herbicide that was killing them, that was actually destroying their livers and killing the women who were tasked with spraying. I discovered that their source of that fear was that their parents and grandparents had been killed for being in a union in 1965 and the perpetrators were still in power and they were afraid that this could happen to them again. I felt, ‘If this is equivalent to Nazis having won World War Two I had better stop everything else I’m doing’ – and I had a number of projects I was pursuing at the time – and give this as many years of my life as it took to expose this mechanism of fear in the hope that somehow in doing so the mechanism would cease to function as smoothly.

Do you think anything happens to social underdogs as a result of telling their stories on film?

Longinotto: We’re going to screen Dreamcatcher and the people in it will see. They’ll be big on the screen and they’ll be heroes and they’ll be survivors and it’ll change their lives. I know it will because it happens every time. They won’t think of themselves as victims any more, if they ever have done. The little girl, Fouzia, who is the main character in my film The Day I Will Never Forget who calls her mother to account for circumcising her, saved it from happening to her little sister. She’s now in the States studying to be a doctor. It changed her life because she was heard. She wrote a poem against her parents and had never dared read it to them. The actual poem she wrote ends, ‘I’m asking you, my loving parents, is this what I really deserve?’ then, when I was filming her, she changed it to ‘I’m asking you, my loving parents, is this what I really deserve? I’m asking all of you,’ and she’s looking into the camera, ‘Is this is what I really deserve?” I said Fouzia that ending was fantastic. She said, ‘Yes. It was for the audience’. She was 8. She knew totally what she was doing and she’s doing talks now in America and showing the film at the university she’s at in New York. The film really gave her a platform and empowered her and she empowered the film. It was a two-way thing.

What does it take to make such personally motivated films?

Longinotto: On the film before last I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this film. This is just too much for me. I don’t know how to do it’ and I was absolutely terrified. It felt like I was going to my death. When something is the centre of your life and it means everything… so I wrote myself a little note on a post-it and I put it by the phone and it said, ‘Kim, in three months time you will read this and you will get through this’ and it was just to say, this person that is going to come back, even if everything collapses and there’s no film, you will read this message and you’ll still be you and you’ll still have your bed upstairs and your life and you won’t be on the street – once you’ve lived on the street you never really get over the fear of being back on the street but that’s pathetic because that’s just such an obvious fear, but there’s much deeper insecurities that I think we all have that we cover up.

What beliefs do you carry with you into your filmmaking?

Fleifel: I don’t think that there are differences between people. I don’t believe that. But some people insist that there are differences and there are people that were chosen and others that weren’t and some who have the rights and others who don’t. These notions are completely meaningless and pointless and they serve nothing but taking humanity into a dark place. I hope we can see an end to that somehow. I think that it’s important for any prospect of peace between anyone you really need to look at the past so that you can put it behind you so that it doesn’t just come back and haunt you all the time.

Does your filmmaking stem from personal determination or is it more collaborative?

Oppenheimer: You can have all the motivation and determination in the world but – particularly for non-fiction filmmakers whose ideas don’t simply spring from the mind it at the very least involves an engagement with the world – the first thing you must do is build that team. Know how to choose the people that will nurture you and challenge you but in a loving way and avoid the people who will take any pleasure in tearing you down. Building that team is essential and then once you do that, even though I’m the director, you can never really distinguish who’s made what contribution. You become a collective body. You work together. One entirely depends on the friends and family you assemble and you build through making a film and in order to make a film. In the case of these two films I’m especially indebted, of course, to Adi Rukun whose friendship I enjoyed through the making of both films and who first took the lead in encouraging me to film the perpetrators. And especially I guess to my Indonesian crew who remain anonymous. These are people who gave a decade of their lives, some of them, changing their careers from journalists, human rights lawyers, heads of NGOs, university professors, filmmakers; risking their safety, knowing they couldn’t take credit for their work in order to make these films because they felt that was so important. These people have been such loving friends and I hope I’ve been that to them as well.

What can films do for us at their best?

Longinotto: Help us to not feel alone and not feel so weird. A lot of the time I do feel weird. I feel I’m different and I’m weird. And I’m not. I’ve got really lovely friends. I watch things and I realise that we’re not weird but society, well it’s not even society but the world tries to make us feel weird when we don’t fit in with the images that we see.

Fleifel: Making films, a lot of people see it as some kind of a romanticised profession, ‘Oh it’s a dream job.’ It’s really hard work. Just to get a chance to make a film is such a huge privilege so if you finally get a chance to do something then hopefully it would make sense to do something that can bring people together, other than just bringing them together in a dark room and have them eat popcorn but actually bring them emotionally, mentally together. Just connect people.

Oppenheimer: What I hope these two films have done is made it possible for the society to talk about these things. Into the space opened by The Act of Killing has come The Look of Silence, showing how urgently needed truth, justice and some form of reconciliation are in Indonesia and showing – through Adi’s dignified example and also the humanity of the one perpetrator’s daughter who finds the courage to be able to apologise on her father’s behalf – showing through those examples what such a dialogue might look like.

The last words of this piece go to Adi Rukun, whose brother, Ramli, was tortured and murdered by genocide perpetrators. The agonising nuances of what he and his family have suffered subsequently form the most emotional aspect of Oppenheimer’s film.

Adi Rukun: I am very happy and grateful for the making of this film because it opened the way for 50 years of silence to be broken. I’m feeling very honoured that I could contribute to the more open debate and discussion from the general public about the’65 issue which is still considered a scary moment in Indonesian history. There’s a saying, ‘even the walls have ears’. For families that were involved in this event, the rest of the members consider that it’s a burden for them. Even among the members they try to distance themselves from the so-called communists. I feel very honoured that I could contribute to this screening, this making of the film.

There is proof that the screening and the distribution of the film contributed to a larger effect. For example, the second screening of The Look of Silence has been endorsed by two state agencies; The National Human Rights Commission and the Jakarta Arts Council. It was watched in the second batch of screenings to an audience of 3,000. It has been screened further – 3,500 screenings all over Indonesia – also the film managed to attract media attention in the country, to address what happened in ’65. Most of the universities in Indonesia have now screened this film. In the very few cases where the university authorities banned the screening, it provoked a movement from the students. They got a new energy to fight against these injustices. Before the screenings of The Look Of Silence, the students wouldn’t dare to question what university authorities were saying about anything.

Published 16 Jun 2015

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