Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Can films help to change the world?

A change of pace this week as I reflect on five films that I viewed recently. All are powerful expressions of a unique art form and all have a political aspect even though that may not always be their primary theme.

Can films help to change the world? This question was prompted by watching several films at the Toronto International Film Festival recently. Watching these films was a first for my wife and I at TIFF, which is now one of the premier film festivals in the world.

These films we were all in TIFF's Contemporary World Speakers series. This series included not just viewing films but also a Q & A afterward with the director or actors, as well as a speaker from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto because of the international character of the films.

We had bought tickets for the five films in the series, but at the time we did not know either which films or on which date they would be shown. All the films, as we discovered, were very powerful, even if not all of them could be classified as equally great.

Two films were set in Iran, one in Australia, one in Germany and Belgium, and one in Israel. All made an enormous impact on audiences, and will no doubt have had or will have a large impact in their home countries as well as other counties around the globe. Some films had world premieres.

TIFF does not award prizes the way that Cannes, Venice and other film festivals do, although several films, in various categories, are selected every year for TIFF's People's Choice awards,

The first film in the series, Red Rose, was made on a shoe-string budget, yet is extremely powerful. Perhaps, with a bigger budget, it might have become a greater film.

This film prompted me to ask the director afterward the Q & A what impact the film would have in Iran, where the film is set. She explained that it is still not allowed to be screened there because of its highly political nature. The two main actors, whom I also spoke to, live outside of Iran and cannot return to their native land because of their political views.

The film tells the story of a twenty-something activist who during student protests surrounding the 2009 elections in Iran has an affair with a fifty-year old man who is hiding in his apartment. He had participated in earlier protests and is therefore afraid of any further involvement. At the end of the film he is arrested.

What was surprising, at least to us and most Western audiences, was the open sexuality that was displayed in the film. This contrasts sharply with the image that most people have of the Middle East. Yet the sex is only a sub-text for the political discussions that the two engage in during the film.

This was also the film that motivated me to consider the question: Can films help to change the world? But other films in the series later prompted the same question, which is why I am writing this post.

More than 300 films were screened during TIFF. The five films we viewed were only a drop in the bucket and probably not even the most outstanding ones, at least to judge by the awards.

Charlie's Country tells the story of an aged Australian Aborigene named Charlie who journeys into the Outback to live the life of his ancestors,

Government intervention in his culture's traditional way of life has left many aboriginals, Charlie included, feeling powerless to control their destinies. When his gun and spear are confiscated, leaving him nothing to hunt with, Charlie defiantly heads into the bush to live in the old way.

Charlie's story is universal, in the sense that aboriginal people everywhere can recognize themselves and their situation in what happens to him in this film. It should be an eye-opener to non-aboriginal people. The acting is superb and helps to make this drama real and relevant in many countries, the US and Canada included.

Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is set in Israel. It is the story of a woman who spends five years trying to get a divorce from her cruel and manipulative husband. He refuses to grant a Get, the bill of divorce that only a man can give.

Viviane is effectively put on trial by her country's marital laws. Marriage and divorce in Israel are both controlled by Orthodox rabbis, who not surprisingly want to preserve the integrity of Jewish families. The power of the Orthodox in Israel is illustrated in their monopoly on religious divorce. Those, like Viviane, who were married by rabbis had to go to the rabbinical courts. Only recently has civil divorce become possible, but it is already widely recognized.

In this film, Viviane finally wins a divorce, but not before her husband exacts a promise from her that she will never get married again. He remains manipulative to the end.

The action of the film is limited to a small courtroom, which serves as a metaphor for Viviane's trapped situation. The acting again makes this film riveting and spell-binding. It is also infuriating because of her situation.

The fourth film was a German production called Tour de Force about several friends who make an annual bike trip throughout Europe. This year the choice of where to go falls on Hannes who has chosen Belgium.

Only later during the trip does he reveal why he chose Belgium. They are going to Oostende, where Hannes intends to end his life. He has ALS and his health has suddenly declined. As required by Belgian law, he has already visited a doctor there who will will administer the fatal injection.

Unlike the other films in this series, this one is not political, but it concerns itself with the end-of-life question that is currently being debated in many countries. The Canadian province of Quebec has already passed such legislation, but it will probably be questioned by the Supreme Court of Canada. Only a handful of jurisdictions have legalized doctor-assisted suicide.

This film is incredibly funny. The humor makes the topic of the film more palatable. It shows the final moments of Hannes. It ends with his friends celebrating his life on the first anniversary of his death.

It is a moving film even if you cannot endorse his' decision to end his life. The director of the film in the Q & A suggested that Americans should look at the drug that is commonly used in Belgium so that the recent spate of botched executions in the US could be be avoided.

Finally, we watched yet another Iranian film, Tales, in which the director weaves together a series of vignettes about seven characters who are linked by their shared social, political and economic struggles.

The director draws together many of the concerns she addressed in her earlier films, In this film she shifts effortlessly between nightmarish suspense, forceful drama, bureaucratic satire, and even some unexpected comedy. This film is an inspiring paean to the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, which is perhaps is the primary key to its impact.

Truly one of the most powerful films in this series, it is both a microcosm of contemporary Iranian working-class society as well as a luminous portrait of human fallibility and virtue. This serves to make these vignettes universal.

All five films are extremely powerful. Yet they represent only a very small selection of the many films that were screened at TIFF this year. Obviously I could not view all of them. Five films in only four days was as much as my wife and I could manage. We had overdosed on serious films.

Can films help to change the world? My response after seeing these five films is affirmative. Film is a compelling medium that rivals and may even exceed the written word in the influence it can have. It involves both eyes and ears in a way that written cannot, since even though the latter make a strong appeal to the imagination they appeal only to the visual sense.

While too often films deal with the banal and are intended purely as entertainment, in the hands of experts they can stir up deeply buried emotions, challenge preconceived notions, and ultimately lead to changes, whether great or small, in the wider world.

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