On Film and Culture

Pablo Picasso once wrote “Everyone wants to understand art, why not try to understand the song of a bird?” Like Picasso, many follow the school of thought that art should be done for art’s sake. However, when it comes to film, the search for a deeper message is much stronger. The call for intelligent and purposeful expression falls to the shoulders of film because it can impact so many people in a relatively short amount of time.

Cinema as a tool for influence is not a new development. Deemed as “propaganda films,” which is defined by Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell in “Propaganda and Pursuasion” as: “…the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” Cinematic works such as Nazi Propaganda Films like 1935’s “Triumph of Will” (Triumph des Willens) or America’s race-driven “A Birth of a Nation” in 1915, were used as promote ideals of the “Other” and a warped sense of nationalism.

Though viewed as artistically sound and historically important, the mission of these films no longer have a place in our modern society (except maybe as inspiration for Fox News broadcasts). However, though the tide has turned, this media, especially from the Left, is still used as vehicle to carry out an agenda. Documentaries such as Michael Moore’s “Farenheit 9/11” or Al Gore’s “An Inconvient Truth” does not hide the fact that they are selling a message: every individual should have a sense of responsibility for the events that shape the world.

Many filmakers believe that it is their duty to create works that are not only visually stunning, but also socially and culturally meaningful. However, compared to pop-culture documentaries or gonzo-style investigative reports, which have the freedom to take a definitive position, cinematic works have to navigate that fine line between purposeful entertainment and pontification. For many artists there is the additional task of creating a significant portrayal of a culture that challenges Hollywood-driven stereotypes whilst competing against mainstream movies that bring in the big bucks. India’s “Monsoon Wedding” by Mira Nair and Hong Kong’s “Chung King Express” by Wong Kar-wai have not only been able to make its way into popular consciousness, but also give a multi-dimensional depiction of oft-misunderstood cultures. However, despite “indie” (i.e. independent) becoming a status symbol for the cool and hip individuals of generation-Y, most directors have not been as lucky as Mira Nair or Wong Kar-Wai in finding the funding to produce and promote their work.

In order to survive, many have to either swallow their pride and create mainstream flicks that entertain but don’t stimulate, or spend their life savings on pieces that only their mother will pay to watch. Despite these obstacles, filmmakers soldier on. With so many barriers to financial success and worldwide acclaim, the question is: “Why bother?” Artists bother not only because it is a passion, but also a means by which to break barriers and present alternative ideas and pose questions on the meaning of origin, culture, nationalism. In addition, modern technology such as the internet and digital filmmaking techniques, have made it easier for artists to share their work without having to deal with legal red tape. In this “Golden Age” of communication, filmmakers have not only been able to present their stories to a global audience, but also have the power to ask their viewers:

“Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”

Paul Gauguin

Paul Gauguin

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