Movie people are forever telling the rest of us that movies can change the world – but they would say that, wouldn’t they? It justifies the outrageous salaries, the decadent lifestyles and the grandiose awards acceptance speeches. Certainly, if James Cameron could point to figures detailing a fall in ocean-liner/iceberg collisions following Titanic’s release, his “I’m the king of the world!” Oscar proclamation might have been more forgivable. But beyond the bluster of Hollywood and the joy of escapism, what kind of real-world impact can cinema really have?
The creators of the Puma Creative Impact award believe it can be massive. Its stated aim? “To honour the documentary film creating the most significant impact in the world.” As the documentaristMorgan Spurlock, a juror for the award, says: “There’s real power in a documentary, and there’s real power in movies to begin with. Movies transcend culture; they transcend countries, and to be able to have something that can create global awareness is necessary today.” It’s this shared belief that helped assemble the jury including royalty (Queen Noor of Jordan), documentary bigwigs (Spurlock) and Hollywood stars (Thandie Newton) that will give a €50,000 (£43,000) prize to the winner in London next week.
Spurlock’s most famous film can more easily claim to have changed the world than most Oscar winners. In 2004, Super Size Mekickstarted a public nutrition debate that has since been adopted by others including Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama, and which still continues. Six weeks after the film premiered, McDonald’s announced that it was eliminating the Super Size option from its menu.
Perhaps the negative publicity surrounding Ken Loach and Franny Armstrong’s documentary McLibel had already worn down the fast food giant. Armstrong would go on to make The Age of Stupid, a finalist for the Creative Impact award, which launched the 10:10 carbon cutting initiative in 46 countries and raised almost £1m in funds to sustain it. “As soon as we finished the film, the audiences at screenings all started asking the same question: what can we do?” Armstrong says. “So, even though we’d initially thought the film would be our contribution to the fight against climate catastrophe, we felt that we probably should come up with a specific answer.”
The Puma award is new, but these sorts of successful campaigning docs are not. Errol Morris’s 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, about a wrongly convicted man on death row, sadly did not change the world, but it certainly changed the life of one man. Randall Adams, who had been imprisoned for murdering a Texas police officer in 1976, was exonerated and released from prison in 1990, thanks to Morris’s persuasive argument.
The stories of narrative cinema’s effect on the real world are almost as plentiful. We know how DW Griffith’s gleefully racist epic The Birth of a Nation contributed to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the American south. Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home, when it first aired in 1966, was watched by a quarter of the British population, and the volume of phone calls it prompted crashed the BBC’s switchboard. The homelessness charity Shelterwas set up as a result. But perhaps the greatest testament to the power of cinema is how the sight of Clark Gable’s bare chest in It Happened One Night caused a massive drop in sales for men’s undershirts.
Except it didn’t. Like much of the evidence presented for movies changing the world, the Gable undershirt yarn appears to be apocryphal. Even if there were solid statistics for men’s underwear sales in the 1930s to draw on (there aren’t), only faulty post-hoc reasoning could lead you to the conclusion that Gable’s manliness was the cause. Leveller heads might point to the Great Depression as a more plausible explanation. Similarly, McDonald’s always attributed the demise of Super Size to a fall in sales, not any documentary; and the foundation of Shelter was well underway before Cathy Come Home’s broadcast (although the film did recruit new supporters).
Thankfully, the Creative Impact award requires a more stringent standard of proof than has usually been required to claim a movie has changed the world. “When film-makers applied, we asked them to give us lots and lots of data and information,” says Jess Search, CEO of award partners, Channel 4 Britdoc. “It was a bit like a tax return.”
Yet for every agenda-changing film of the kind the award recognises, there are a hundred smaller documentaries on equally worthy issues that barely register with audiences – let alone leave a lasting impression on society. Saturday-night movie audiences will usually choose the mindless action movie over a crusading documentary on the plight of Nicaraguan basket weavers. And, if said mindless action movie features, say, an Audi being driven by Daniel Craig, it will probably have a more measurable impact on our behaviour, too – in the form of car sales.
The jury may still be out on cinema’s ability to divert the course of history, but its ability to sell stuff has never been in dispute – look out for the plug for Wrigley’s PK Chewing Gum in Fritz Lang’s M(1931) – which is why an estimated $1.8bn (£1.2bn) was spent last year on product placement. Cinema’s most evident impact hasn’t been moral improvement, but persuading audiences to buy what they don’t need – be it cigarettes or an unpalatable political ideology. As any guilty appreciator of Nazi mise en scene in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will can tell you, the devil not only has the best tunes, he also has a pretty impressive DVD collection.
In recent years, campaigning documentaries have done a lot to rid themselves of the reputation for dingy worthiness. Into Eternity(2010) was a thorough exploration of nuclear waste disposal, yes, but it was also brilliantly creepy, noirish sci-fi. The Oscar-nominated Inside Job (2010) used a voiceover from movie star Matt Damon and sweeping shots of city skylines to get audiences up to speed on subprime mortgages – an impressive feat in itself. Meanwhile, feature films have become as ethically minded as campaigning documentaries. Socially conscious blockbusters such as the oil-industry drama Syriana (2005), Blood Diamond (2006) and the upcoming Machine Gun Preacher, which tackles the subject of child soldiers in Sudan, have successfully married themes of contemporary injustice with Hollywood storytelling.
What all these movies boast is an ability to “raise awareness” among their audience, and in some cases that’s enough. WhenPhiladelphia came out in 1993, the simple decision to cast the unimpeachably wholesome Tom Hanks as a homosexual man dying of an Aids-related illness did more to confront homophobia and destigmatise HIV/Aids than any number of government programmes.
Unfortunately for armchair activists, being aware of a problem isn’t the same thing as addressing it. If a movie like Machine Gun Preacher fails to leave its audience adequately energised, it raises the distasteful possibility that human suffering is just another entertainment genre. As a despairing character comments in Hotel Rwanda, a 2004 drama about the Rwandan genocide: “If people see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s terrible,’ and they’ll go on eating their dinners.”
Orlando Bagwell, an Emmy award-winning film-maker and director of the New York-based JustFilms initiative that supports films on social issues, says today’s film-makers have learned how to interrupt dinner. “I think technology now allows us to not only make films more actively available to the public, but at the same time to take advantage of that moment when people finish watching a film and they feel like, ‘What can I do?’”
There are now several organisations, such as Good Screenings,Britdoc and Resist, that attempt to capitalise on that embarrassingly brief moment by making practical links between campaigning documentaries with activist organisations. If Cathy Come Home had been released today, those callers to the BBC phone lines would have been directed to a website where they could have signed an online petition, donated money to a related good cause and found out the date of the next anti-government-cuts demo.
Perhaps if the impact of cinema is hard to quantify, it is not an indication of its failure to change the world, but of the occasionally insidious way in which it does so – not by changing the world, exactly, but by subtly changing the minds of the people in it. “We managed 25 million viewers for McLibel,” says Armstrong. “For Age of Stupid we have many more resources and backing, so we’re aiming for 10 times that number. If we do reach 250 million people, then so what? What influence could 250 million angry, inspired, motivated citizens possibly have?”
If after all that, the world still doesn’t change, maybe it’s not the movies we should be blaming. Great movies can turn audiences into activists, but does that make up for all the time wasted watching Transformers: Dark of the Moon, when we should have been out, defending our civil liberties? Probably not.