I recently came across the Acumen Fund’s eye-opening publication, 10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty, and the list has led me to revisit my views on the role of cinema as an engine of social change. Though I approach shooting work principally as artistic endeavor, my aesthetic sensibilities have always been framed by a belief in the tremendous potential of film, and filmmakers, to effect positive change in the world. My views on how film does this best, however, seem to differ from the accepted model, which has traditionally been rooted exclusively in the documentary genre.
I find the lessons outlined in The 10 Things We’ve Learned to be remarkably astute, and I’m struck by how many of them hinge on the critical importance of inspiration in social enterprise. Without leaders who are inspired and inspiring, no amount of innovation, manpower, or cold hard cash can make an enduring dent in the world’s social problems. And so it goes with cinema as well. To have a real and lasting influence on people’s lives, films should do what films do best: inspire.
Why is a sixty-second Superbowl commercial so much more engaging than most feature-length documentary films? The answer has little to do with production budgets and everything to do with method. Too many documentaries prioritize their message over the film’s viewing experience––they put story over storytelling––and this is part of why so many docs feel like medicine. Films that seek to raise awareness about the world’s ills and injustices are often far more closely aligned with journalism than cinema, and they grossly underestimate the latter’s sophistication and power. This model of filmmaking relies on guilt, not inspiration, to reach viewers, and this is one of the reasons the genre has so consistently struggled to connect with mainstream audiences. At the end of the day, it’s a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, and Hollywood, for all its faults, has much to teach us about confectionery.
I think clues for a more tenable cinematic model of social enterprise can be found in the 1996 film When We Were Kings, director Leon Gast’s superb documentary about Muhammad Ali’s 1974 fight with George Foreman in Zaire. In contrast to almost every other film I’ve seen about Africa, When We Were Kings doesn’t show us the continent’s suffering, but rather what is possible in the face of overwhelming odds. In place of the familiar images of poverty, war, and blight, it gives us instead the story of the underdog, a tried-and-true narrative that never fails to inspire. The result is exhilarating, and in this strategy lies an important lesson for filmmakers in all genres, myself included.
When the goal is inspiration, the medium doesn’t have to be non-fictional, and after ten years in the trenches of film production––on projects ranging from the smallest indy docs to some of the biggest Hollywood features––I find these ideas incredibly refreshing to think about. At the end of the day, cinema, like all great art, is a form of leadership. And like all good leaders, films should inspire.
I can’t wait to see what’s next.