Clear-conscience Cinema

Lizzy Donnelly 14 May 2012

Lizzy Donnelly wonders whether films intended to raise social awareness do more harm than good

Recently, Ewan McGregor: Cold Chain Mission aired on BBC Two. Following the actor as he carries out humanitarian work for UNICEF, this film highlights how countless families in impoverished, isolated areas of the world cannot have their children vaccinated against serious illnesses.

Nowadays, it’s fairly common practice for celebrities, and especially film actors, to raise awareness of social issues in this way. You could say it’s a shame our attention is often drawn to war zones or poorer regions only once we have seen photos of celebrities there. Indeed, it’s doubtful the same number of people would tune in to that documentary if Ewan McGregor’s name didn’t feature in the title. Nevertheless, as UNICEF states on its website: “Celebrities attract attention, so they are in a position to focus the world’s eyes…”

So, when individual players from the acting world have this great an influence, it comes as no surprise that the film industry is capable of packing an even bigger punch. Whilst buying a cinema ticket can’t achieve outright change or alter the past, films such as Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland and Schindler’s List are all acclaimed works that effectively raise awareness and keep the memory of important events alive.

A film which received an astonishing amount of attention for its message was Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond. Set during Sierra Leone’s civil war, this movie explores the conflict financed by the illegal mining of precious stones. Warner Bros. spent almost no money on advertising Blood Diamond, due to the unexpected amount of free publicity it received. The furore surrounding Zwick’s film was such that De Beers chief Jonathan Oppenheimer expressed concern that diamond sales would dip, should people believe that steps had not been taken to ensure the eradication of blood diamonds from the market. Here, the film industry’s decision to veer from the usual stream of lukewarm, apolitical rubbish certainly paid off.

However, movies don’t always get it right. When it comes to combining social and humanitarian issues with storytelling, there’s a fine line between triteness and poignancy. Tugging on heart-strings and hamming-up the script keeps a film mainstream; it brings in the big bucks. As a result, what is sometimes intended to be a commercially-successful way of delivering a ‘history lesson’ can turn out to be something quite different. The 2011 movie The Help was supposed to pay homage to those women who had suffered terribly in the racist South of 1960s-America. Director Tate Taylor smugly expressed a desire to “incite conversation”. It was a commercial success, but incited the kind of conversation he probably hadn’t expected. Many Americans were outraged, claiming the film was not an honest reflection of the racial prejudice which characterised the era. Similarly, Paul Haggis’ film Crash, – perhaps one of the biggest cases of ‘Emperor’s-New-Clothes’ in film history, won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture in 2007 – pat on the back for those who had tried to explore racism at a ‘deeper level’. Crash was a superficial offering that fooled the Academy, but not so much the critics. To quote Stephanie Zacharek: ” only confirms what we already know about racism: It’s inside every one of us. That should be a starting point, not a startling revelation.”

A film which seeks to raise social awareness or ‘make the world a better place’ is hardly a novelty. Some film-makers will always have more arrogance than sense, setting out to impose views on others with the belief that inducing tears can induce change. However, for every trite Crash, there is always a Babel. For every film like The Help, there is a far more beautiful, subtler alternative, such as Rabbit-Proof Fence. Despite tales of diva antics and gross expenditure, the film industry does have some form of conscience. Nevertheless, just as celebrities don’t have to dress up to the nines to publicise their humanitarian work, film-makers shouldn’t underestimate the importance of casting historical schmaltz aside, and letting the facts speak for themselves.

Lizzy Donnelly