Over on Truly Free Film Ted Hope has a post from yesterday entitled Twelve Thoughts on the Value of Cinema. Generally speaking I agree with his points. It’s rare a movie actually justifies the cost of a ticket particularly as ticket prices rising closer and closer to the cost of owning your own DVD copy of the film packed with additional materials you can watch at your leisure.

He mentions that his theater going tends to be more of a political statement. He’s seeing more independent or artistic films presumably. That strikes me as a good thing and something I need to make more of a point of doing. My theater going of the last six months has been severely limited due to my tight budget. The four films I’ve seen in the theater during that time were all big films that didn’t really need my dollars to fill out their box office receipts (Sherlock Holmes, Avatar, Kick-Ass, and Iron Man 2). I need to resolve to see the movies that need more support and save the big films for Netflix. That’s not really what I want to talk about about Hope’s post, though.

I want to talk about a particular point he makes that I disagree with. I think he’s pretty on the money with most of his points about bringing more value to the cinema experience but in point number nine I take some issue.

When does going to a movie also provide a social good?  Can going to the movies make the world a better place?  Such social good is dependent both on the content and the environment in which it is delivered.  People take great pleasure in doing something positive with their time and sometimes just showing up can trigger that phenomenon.

His point seems to be coming from the assumption that film can provide social good and potentially even make the world a better place. Admitted that his point seems more geared towards making the audience feel good like going to the movies is an act of making the world a better place but I take issue with that as well.

I am not one who thinks film can provide social good. Can it illuminate issues, educate, inform and inspire? Absolutely. However, the majority of us only engage films that reinforce our existing beliefs. It’s unlikely most of the people who voted for California’s notorious Proposition 8 saw the film Milk. Holocaust-deniers probably haven’t gotten around to watching Schindler’s List. So, these movies, powerful as they may be, aren’t necessarily providing a social good. People who already are on board with the message see them and feel good about themselves, which is fine. I am of the belief that it is a rarity for a film to change a person’s perspective on anything of social importance.

I’m not saying it can’t happen. I’m not saying films can’t offer avenue for social change. I’m just of the opinion that when it happens it’s a rarity and that is because people are unlikely to choose a film that will provide a genuine challenge to deep held beliefs.

I base this in that watching a film is an inherently passive activity. To make change and effect social good requires changing that passive activity into action. I don’t see a whole lot of filmmakers doing that. Making a film and getting it out in front of people is hard expensive work. After that’s done the approach seems to be to just be satisfied that people have seen the movie. Sometimes festivals, groups, or organizations will create panel discussions or open forums around a film but that does not become a typical experience of the film but a special event.

I have seen one example of how I think this should be done right. I would love to hear other examples and approaches. Nancy Schwartzman has been coupling her short film “The Line” with a campaign that engages viewers to be active participants in screenings. The film, a documentary about confronting her rape experience, is presented in a variety of forums often accompanied by Nancy herself or someone associated with The Line Campaign who engage the audience in discussion after the screening. From what I’ve seen this is how it’s done at nearly every screening of the film. The campaign is built around the concept of “The Line,” where you as an individual draw your line with regard to consent. It features on its website posts from viewers from the screenings and allows just about anyone to submit their own thoughts on it.

The key to what gives “The Line” the genuine potential to create social good and make change is that screenings are coupled with action. It gives a direct outlet for the call to action in the film. It transforms the passive activity into action and engagement. It creates social good one screening at a time. That is, I believe, the only way film can really accomplish that.

I would love to hear about other campaigns similar to “The Line,” though, or alternative ways that watching a film is transformed into action. If you have something please do share it in the comments below.

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