Time and time again, cinema is mindlessly dismissed as ‘escapism’. Whilst films are predominately created for entertainment purposes, it would be a mistake to reject their ‘world-changing’ potential. Films can have an impact far greater than first imagined. They can influence culture, politics, laws, and more importantly, they can change the course of history (apologies for being melodramatic). As Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female director, perfectly put it; ‘Art can touch people and make them open up.’
The films below have done just that. Whether for good or evil, they have acted as catalysts for change.
Upon its release in 2013, Blackfish shocked the world. The story of Tilikum was suddenly launched into the homes of millions of oblivious viewers. This indie documentary followed the tragic tale of a mistreated Orca from Seaworld, whose cramped container and inhumane treatment led him to kill three of his trainers. The revelation of how these poor marine creatures were treated behind closed doors led to a global outcry. A tsunami of tweets, Facebook video shares and petitions inflamed the internet, exposing the insidious price of this ‘entertaining’ spectacle. Seaworld was hit badly; millions of people boycotted their resort, their reputation was in tatters, ticket sales dramatically dropped and share prices halved. The overarching result? Seaworld cancelled their killer whale breeding program and stopped all popular live shows featuring Shamu the Orca. Huzzah! Humanity 1. Animal cruelty 0.
2. A Girl in the River
It is no secret that honour killings are an international disgrace. Claiming the lives of 5000 women every year, these cold-blooded murders are still legal in many countries. Oscar Winner, Obaid-Chinoy, was determined to change this. Her film, A Girl in the River, tells the tale of a woman who is nearly killed by her father for indulging in a forbidden love. And the shocking part? Without a shred of remorse, her father fails to understand the gravitas of his actions. On the contrary, he feels justified in killing his own daughter in order to protect his family from dishonour. Luckily, however, his rationale was not shared by Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani Prime Minister. In a pivotal moment for feminism, Sharif declared that after watching the film, he was determined to change the law on honour killings. In her Oscar acceptance speech, Obaid-Chinoy declared that this change reflects ‘the power of film’. She could not have been more right.
In a time where the gay community was frequently demonised by British tabloids, LGBTQ+ characters in film were the stuff of legend. Victim, a 1961 film, attempted to counteract the industry’s rampant homophobia. It told the story of a closeted lawyer who risks his career and comfortable lifestyle by defending a previous lover who commited suicide after being imprisoned for being gay. The film was revolutionary – it was the first of its kind to empathise with a gay protagonist. Not only did it help improve British society’s intensely homophobic sentiment, but it also had a significant political impact. The film’s premiere coincided with the parliamentary debate over whether or not to legalise homosexuality; it was later revealed that the film swayed parliament’s opinion and led to the passing of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act. The magnitude of these changes just goes to show – film has the power to persuade even the most influential, albeit, stubborn personalities.
Victim was not the only film which reversed attitudes towards the gay community. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has always been a huge point of contention. One which was forced into taboo by widespread panic, exacerbated by the prejudices of the British media. Shockingly, even by 1993, the topic was still awkwardly avoided. Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks, challenged this. Putting the HIV epidemic into the forefront of societal discourse, this film de-stigmatised AIDS and investigated how this disease, twisted by the media, entrained a toxic culture of homophobia. The film had a global butterfly effect; hundreds of thousands of people felt empathy towards those afflicted with the illness. Although still a battle bravely faced by the gay community today, Philadelphia pushed the HIV epidemic controversy to the forefront of conversations and marked the beginning of a shift in attitudes.
5. Super Size Me
Although a simple idea, this documentary was a groundbreaking hit – shocking the nation into hypnotised revulsion. Documentary maker, Morgan Spurlock, shot to fame overnight after the debut of his inflammatory film about the dark truths behind McDonald’s chain food. During the film, he eats nothing but McDonald’s for a whole month. The effects are horrifically eye-opening. Not only does Spurlock gain more than twenty pounds, but he also experiences liver failure and bouts of depression. This film changed the way in which the public viewed fast food; it rekindled the debate over the obesity crisis and how fast food chains fuel a culture of irresponsible eating. Within six weeks, McDonald’s had discarded their ‘Super Size’ option and have now attempted to re-vamp their menu with ‘healthier’ options. The film, undoubtedly, was a moral success.
6. The Thin Blue Line
The Thin Blue Line is easily one of the most impactful (and life-affirming) films out there. In 1988, Errol Morris made a reconstruction of the Randall Dale Adams case – a famous trial about a man who was sentenced to death after being wrongly accused for the murder of a police officer. As the film progresses, it becomes very clear that Adams was innocent, convicted after a string of false allegations from individuals with their own agendas. The film immediately grabbed the media’s attention and sparked huge controversy, leading to Adam’s retrial, and later acquittance. This documentary is one in a million – not many films can boast that they, quite literally, gave a man his life back.
7. A Short Film About Killing
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing is another film which influenced a country’s lawmakers. Set in a bleak, post-Cold War Warsaw, a man is brutally executed for committing murder. Although the film doesn’t bypass the magnitude of the young man’s crime, it cleverly creates a mirroring of the two acts – the murder and the result; cold-blooded execution. By pitting these two deeds side by side, the film shrewdly forces the audience to ask themselves a valid question: Is there any difference between both of these actions? After a controversial reception at Cannes Film Festival, Polish lawmakers soon eradicated the death penalty and other countries were forced to look at their own associations with it. A Short Film About Killing is living proof of film’s potency; it has the ability to shake the very laws in which society is grounded upon.
8. Volhynia (Hatred)
Following the trend of Polish films, the next feature to cause major controversy was Wojciech Smarzowski’s 2016 film, Volhynia (otherwise known internationally as Hatred). However, it is yet to be determined whether the effect of this film was positive or negative.
The film follows a Polish girl and Ukrainian man who live during the Volhynia massacre. This was the mass murder of Poles by Ukrainians during 1943 and 1944 whilst under Nazi German occupation. The film depicts this inhumane atrocity and on a smaller scale, the equally abominable retaliation acts committed by the Poles. The film’s gruesome content dug up old wounds and has led to the rising tensions between Poland and Ukraine.
Apart from reopening history, Volhynia has caused huge dissension between the neighbouring countries. The blunt portrayal of Ukranians as ruthless fascists could easily be exploited by Moscow and reinforces false stereotypes already existing within the European and Russian media. As a result, in order to prevent the fuelling of the Russian-propaganda machine, the film has been banned by the Ukrainian government. However, Russian manipulation of the film’s content is not the only serious threat. An exaggerated portrayal of the Volhynia massacre is the perfect tool for rising right-wing fascists in Poland for spreading xenophobia.
Although Smarzowski acknowledges these issues, he argues that ‘there will never be a good moment’ to release this film. However, he insists that its importance in remembering the victims remains a valid reason to screen it. Volhynia’s ripples can be seen for miles. But do the benefits outweigh the negatives? Currently, it is too difficult to judge.
9. The Birth of A Nation
Whilst the majority of films on this list have been influential for the right reasons, DW Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of A Nation certainly is not. Set during the American Civil War, the film follows two families; the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South. When the Cameron family is attacked by black soldiers, they are rescued by members of the Ku Klu Klan. This drives the eldest son to join the KKK, rising the ranks until he becomes their leader. The film lauded the work of the KKK, inciting far-right individuals to join this extremist group. Unfortunately, the film made the KKK look ‘trendy’, causing membership (of a nearly extinct group) to increase to 4 million by the 1920s. In the wrong hands, cinema can be a dangerous medium.
This article shouldn’t be left on a depressing note. So this one should cheer you up. Everyone loves Bambi. And if anyone says that Bambi didn’t leave them crying in the shower, guess what? They’re lying. On its 1942 release, viewers were distraught after watching the lovable baby deer orphaned after a hunter murders his mother. However, viewers were not the only ones left bawling in their seats. Recreational hunters were apparently moved too by this cartoon deer. Many of whom, after watching, soon abandoned their hobby, decreasing hunter numbers by 50% (yes this statistic is 100% accurate and wasn’t found on a buzzfeed article…). Titled the ‘Bambi effect’, Bambi soon became a national animal rights symbol, changing the course of the hunting industry and those who participate in it. How wholesome.