Sundance Panel: How "Movies That Matter" Can Matter


We would like to believe that "socially relevant" films have some effect outside the theater, right? You must be able to name a few that have made you write a letter or change some habits? Feel free to comment below.

Directors, writers and producers on Monday's Movies that Matter Panel have influenced everything from AIDS policy, to the phase-out of PVC packaging, to the global warming debate. Participants included: Sean Fine (War/Dance), Judith Helfand (Everything's Cool), Rory Kennedy (Ghosts of Abu Ghraib), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Gayle Smith (The Center for American Progress), Diane Weyermann (Participant Productions) and Brian Steidle (subject of The Devil Came on Horseback). Helene Cooper of the New York Times (who became an anti-Apartheid activist after seeing Cry Freedom) moderated. While everyone agreed that the movies can matter, there were a variety of approaches to how and why.We've all seen the effects of An Inconvenient Truth. My mom's cat knows about it. Weyermann noted, "The idea was to try to reach as many people as possible to incite change." Participant Productions clearly carried this out successfully through nonprofit partnerships and savvy marketing. To head off doubters, a "bible of science" was provided to press along with the film's initial release. A year after the Sundance premier, "The debate about whether global warming exists is over," said Weyermann. "Now it's 'what can we do?'"

That's where Hefland's Everything's Cool comes in. Following folks who have striven in various ways to sound the global warming alarm, the flick is apparently heavily humor-reliant (I'll screen it tomorrow). With an eye towards politically activating those who have been "awakened" by the Truth, the film has partnered with Bill McKibben's Step It Up 2007. You can be sure we'll have lots of updates as the April 14 nationwide launch approaches.

Hefland previously influenced Victoria's Secret to stop using PVC plastic packaging in concert with Blue Vinyl's release. Apparently, the campaign had a hand in Kaiser's choosing an alternative to multiple football fields-worth of harmful chemical-laden flooring as well. "The connection to social change works," she contended.

Schlosser, who penned Fast Food Nation and later worked on the film, offered that print can work as effectively as movies. (Personal example: an ex boyfriend who remained uninfluenced by my conventional meat wariness during two years of togetherness became a vegetarian after reading Schlosser's book.) The reasons for the film's non-supersized success weren't clear: distribution? Poor reviews? (Any opinions?)

Smith, who spent twenty years as a reporter in Africa and has served as an advisor to USAID, repeatedly emphasized celluloid's powerful role. "Films are critical to building social movements," she said. She highlighted the importance of enabling Americans to identify with documentary subjects from far-away places. According to Smith, conventional wisdom among politicians holds that it's impossible to take action on international issues because those inside the Beltway are convinced that voters don't care. If films engage voters, they are more likely to pressure their representatives.

Kennedy noted that film works powerfully inside the Beltway as well. Senator Lehey revealed that a screening of one of her AIDS-related docs was instrumental to the appropriation of $25 million to fight the disease in Africa. My guess is that such impacts are rare for non-Kennedys (she's RFK's daughter).

After discussing Abu Ghraib interrogators who had obeyed the orders of higher-ups Kennedy noted, "People in a place of authority have a huge amount of responsibility."

Other themes included the filmmaker's role as witness-bearer, especially when dealing with Abu Ghraib and Darfur-like atrocities; our propensity as humans to unquestionably obey authority; the importance of involving religious organizations in change-making; and financial and artistic freedom as keys to "speaking truth to power".

On the way out, I overheard kvetching about how the panel offered "nothing new." Maybe I'm becoming a Pollyanna in my old age? Between the eco-slanted SWAG, incredible yet-to-be-reviewed social docs, and all of this afternoon's evidence of film's potential, I'm feeling downright activated. ::Sundance Film Festival

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