Film as Activism? Impact Beyond the Oscars

A film alone cannot change the world, it has to be seen, heard, and felt.” - Susan Sarandon

The same statement can be applied to activism, where efforts to bring about social change need to be seen, heard, and felt in order to change the world. Is it possible that film and activism can work together, where advocacy for social change is done through the medium of film? And if so, how can we make sure these films get seen, heard, and felt?

The 90th Academy Awards are coming up on March 4th and many would say that it qualifies as a way to provide the visibility needed to make any sort of societal impact among a wider audience. But if this change is to come about, how will we know? Is it measurable?

The Doc Impact Award is one documentary film competition that attempts to do just this. Winning documentaries are chosen based on their ability to work as a driver of change and create a measurable impact on society. This measurement is done through an impact evaluation that looks at four impact factors: changing minds, changing behaviors, building communities, and changing structures (docimpactaward.org).

While the Doc Impact Award looks at the impact of documentaries, can this same formula be applied to regular narratives, which account for a large portion of Oscar nominated-films?  Though this hasn’t been tested, there are other methodologies that have been created to measure impact for movies of all genres. One of the most prominent is the Bechdel Test, an evaluation as to whether or not women are portrayed in a sexist or gender stereotyped way. Further evolutions of this test have since been designed, with more inclusivity and diversity among women being accounted for both on and off the screen.

As the impact of filmmaking becomes more of a conversation, the Academy Awards have found themselves at the center of the discussion. Each year, Hollywood’s largest stage brings with it large amounts of publicity. The spotlight shines bright for those that are nominated and even more so for those that win. These films are surely being seen, heard, and felt. But are these particular films creating social change, whether intended to or not? And is it even the intent of the creators and actors that their films become a source of activism for the cause in which they portray?

Winning speeches are often the reflection of this intention, even becoming a point of controversy as to whether or not films should be playing an activist role.  An example of this can be seen in the censoring of Cynthia Wade’s 2008 speech when she won Best Short Documentary and used the moment to support LGBTIQ rights.

Just a year later, in 2009, Dustin Lance Black won Best Original Screenplay for Milk, a film about gay San Francisco mayor Harvey Milk. His speech included profound support for the younger LGBTIQ community, saying “...that very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours”.

When Ang Lee won Best Director in 2005 for Brokeback Mountain, he used his speech to thank the fictional gay men in the film and their example of showing us “...the greatness of love itself.”

And last year the director of 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight, Barry Jenkins, wrote out his speech with a message to the LGBTIQ community, saying:

“And so, to anyone watching this who sees themselves in us, let this be a symbol, a reflection that leads you to love yourself. Because doing so may be the difference between dreaming at all and, somehow through the Academy's grace, realizing dreams you never allowed yourself to have.”

There is no doubt that, from these speeches, the intent of these films was more than just entertainment. They were meant to be a statement. The activism behind them was given an opportunity as the Oscars provided the platform for an audience to see, hear, and feel its message and, hopefully, bring about societal change.

But are the Academy Awards the best medium through which films can be used as activism? They’re certainly not the only choice. There are numerous film festivals around the world that promote LGBTIQ themed movies, such as Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, OutFest , NewFest, Hong Kong Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and many more.

So attend these film festivals! Rent that movie you’ve been meaning to see! And this Sunday night, make sure to watch the Oscars, where LGBTIQ films such as Call Me By Your Name and The Fantastic Woman try their hand at winning. It’s an attempt to not just exist as a film, but to be seen, heard, and felt beyond the theater and into the threads of society.

* Can’t wait until Sunday? Check out these LGBTIQ 2018 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar submissions!