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How can films be politically engaging?

What is the purpose of cinema? To show us new stories, ideas, characters beyond our everyday experiences? To get a glimpse of a life, a story that could never happen to us and allow us to escape from reality for a while? Well, certainly not always. So often, it is the goal of films to show us exactly our world, our lives, and to get us to see them in a new light for the first time, to educate us on something important to our experiences and to explore topics that affect people directly today.

Films that explore important political topics of their era have always been a part of the silver screen’s history, and today is no different. Particularly in these politically-divisive times, films looking to explore these topics in their own unique way become more and more relevant and more and more interesting. So, in this article, I hope to explore different styles, techniques, and methods used by contemporary filmmakers to explore prominent social and political topics of the day.

So often, it is the goal of cinema to show us exactly our world, our lives, and to get us to see them in a new light for the first time, to educate us on something important

One of the most evident types of political filmmaking would be those centred around important political events or eras, known as documented filmmaking (not to be confused with documentaries). The advantage of these films – in their telling of stories to general audiences – is that they can not only present the events in question, but also utilise tone, atmosphere, and visual styling to make it easier for the audience to understand the events unfolding on screen. Recent works, such as The Big Short (Adam McKay) and Brexit: The Uncivil War (Toby Haynes), are good examples of this, respectively telling the stories of the 2008 financial crash and the campaign leading up to the EU referendum in ways that allow the audience to get a better understanding of those events – and not just by directly telling the story. Both films explain their topics with clear metaphors, inconsistent tones depending on the events on screen and fourth-wall-breaking to explain points, which sends a clear message to the audience to easily understand.

This doesn’t just work for films retelling major political events, but for topics that may have slipped some people’s minds and evaded general consciousness. Smaller events again become talking points culturally, and with the inevitable press coverage that surrounds film releases, even people who don’t plan on seeing a particular film become increasingly likely to know about the real-life events they refer to. Recent films like The Laundromat and Official Secrets are good examples of this, delving into the intricacies of their topics and giving audiences fresh incentives to relearn and understand them.

One of the most evident types of political filmmaking would be those centred around important political events or eras, known as documented filmmaking

Biopics of political figures are also prime opportunities for filmmakers to explore contemporary or controversial points. These films can be good at covering a variety of issues, not just as they tend to cover a longer period of time and thus explore a variety of topics that the political figure was involved in, but also in giving the audience a personal story and character to whom they can relate and try to understand their perspectives and motivations. These types of films prove particularly popular come awards seasons, and the list of best actor and actress nominations are full of these biopic performances, from Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, to Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour. The performances can be often so entertaining and captivating that the audience can’t help but be totally engaged by the character, and, by extension, the political circumstances surrounding them.

Then there are films that are focused not so much on direct political events and characters, but on themes. Now, the broadness of the term ‘political’ means it can cover a wide range of fields; social issues, past historical eras, power structures in relationships, to name but a few different applications of the term. It becomes important to differentiate between films about a particular topic (say, feminism in a film such as Lady Bird) and films more directly talking about current political issues in an alternative way to the documented filmmaking mentioned above.

Films can also use far more absurdist and intense narratives and metaphors to discuss very relevant political topics

These types of films are interesting to watch and analyse because the politics within them is articulated through subtext and thematic resonance, meaning that so much of the film, in both an overt and covert sense, is focused on reinforcing and developing its topic. A perfect recent example of this is Jordan Peele’s debut film Get Out, a film that discusses themes of contemporary liberal racism not only through its narrative and storyline, but through so many subtle details only noticeable on the second and third time of watching. It is these subtler elements in both the filmmaking (camera angles, editing, focus etc.) and the on-screen effects (background details, colour visuals, power dynamics etc.) that can say more about a political topic than just relay a narrative around an event.

Films can also use far more absurdist and intense narratives and metaphors to discuss very relevant political topics. Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley), a film about contemporary capitalism and its exploitation of vulnerable workers, mixes both familiar elements and visual cues (such as picket lines and strikes) with unique and memorable conceits that are both completely alien to the audience, yet very easy to understand their meaning. I won’t diverge into spoiler territory, but watch the film and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean. Use of metaphor and analogous narratives introduce and develop political ideas for audiences that they might not have thought about before, and in a creative and utterly unique way.

Political films are important, but they are not journalism, and they are not objective

All of these creative approaches to political topics can be very entertaining, and are informative towards their subject matter. However, all of this must come with a very important warning. Political filmmaking is still filmmaking. Other factors impact the way in which a story is presented on screen, from the personal politics of the directors and writers, to deviations from real life in order to fit a better film structure. For example, Katheryn Bigelow uses physical torture as a method of advancing the narrative in her film Zero Dark Thirty (about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden), depicting torture as an effective (and justifiable) interrogation method, despite the objective inaccuracy of this notion.

Political films are important, but they are not journalism, and they are not objective. That is why I encourage you, whenever you watch a film on a certain political subject, to ask questions, view it critically, and read around the subject as much as possible. Who is making the film, and why? What is the actual context surrounding the events depicted? If a political film, in any of the ways described above, has piqued your interest and curiosity, then that’s fantastic. But it will not be the end of the story. And after you have taken that first step, and looked beyond what the film has told you, you may find a far richer and deeper understanding that you could never have expected.

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