Can Films Change our Views?

By Samita Manhas, Groundswell cohort member

Recently, I attended an event called “The cinema of environmental crisis”. The presentation focused on whether or not films that have an environmental theme can have an impact on individuals or communities in a way that challenges and changes their views. A variety of genres were looked at but I will take a closer look at environmental documentaries. Not the preachy kind, but the ones that share compassionate stories about communities, human experiences and the lives of animals. When we feel connected to a cause, for many of us, there is a greater chance we will take action. To feel a connection, sometimes our minds need to be transported to other worlds.

Reading statistics, facts and other data on why global warming is a threat to all life on Earth has not impacted a majority of people around the globe. Hearing about super tankers going through the Douglas Channel doesn’t make everyone in BC teary eyed. Films have the ability to fully immerse us in worlds that are hidden from us. They can help us work through issues that we may not have the capacity to relate to or understand.

I am a person who has had my views changed by the power of film. One of these is, Food Inc (on Netflix). I saw it many years ago but there are scenes from this film that are still quite vivid in my memory. Food Inc., made me aware of the animal abuse that exists within factory farms. After watching this, I also began doing a lot of my own research. What drove me to take action in my life, starting with my diet, was the awareness of the reality these animals face. I keep this reality in mind, on a daily basis. This helps me stick to my vegetarian diet.

Last week, at our potluck someone brought chicken strips. Oh, how I used to love those. I felt like a vampire who had only eaten squirrels for the last 3 years and got a sniff of human blood (poor vampires!). Once I inhaled the scent, my belly responded in hunger. Dip those in some ranch sauce and I’m good to go. It was an automatic reaction that did not take into account the reality of what that piece of food actually was. It takes mere seconds for that vivid imagery from Food Inc. to pop back into my mind. Reality had set in. Now, a bowl of sautéed veggies and a glass of beer is all I want. Over time, incidents like these have become rare for me. In my situation, film helped me not only gain awareness but also change my ways.

This one film impacted my life. Not just with my diet but with my purchases (food and non-food related), with my level of respect for animals and my drive to take action. I know I am not alone in this. We can look at a film like Blackfish, which has driven SeaWorld’s revenue and attendance down. In the second quarter of this year, their net income had dropped by a whopping 84%. I believe this is a result of compassion being evoked in a large number of people after seeing how whales live in a contained environment.

There has been a surge of environmental documentaries that have given us a first-hand view of environmental and social injustices occurring in communities throughout BC. Intervenors on the Kinder Morgan Pipeline expansion, residents of Burnaby and members of the Tsleil- Waututh Nation are featured in Zack Embree’s, Directly Affected. Members of the Heiltsuk Nation are featured in Groundswell (I have a copy you can borrow). Members of the Gitga’at Nation are featured in Stand (available on Netflix). We hear their stories, how they live, where they live, what they love and what they worry about; we are completely immersed in their lives. Depending on where viewers are from, some of us get to see parts of BC that we have not seen before. With the last two films I mentioned, we are transported to a remote region that has one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, The Great Bear Rainforest.  This visual has a greater impact than hearing a fact like, the global average temperature increased by more than 1.4°F over the last century, in large part due to fossil fuels. Or, another communication we often hear is, Project X will create an X number of jobs for Canadians therefore we should support it. With these films, we are given access to the lives that are directly affected by these projects. This awareness can start conversations and help us form a more accurate understanding.

These films do not present us with easy or doable solutions. Instead, they show us issues that are hard to make sense of on our own. They draw out our emotional responses.

The goal of some of these films may be to activate the love and compassion that exists within us. I believe it has the power to do so. We have a greater capacity to take action when our awareness is raised in a compassionate manner. Taking action could be as simple as starting conversations, becoming a smarter shopper, taking voting seriously, or having meatless Mondays.

I was able to reflect on the role of film in my life and share one experience with you all. What steps we take after awareness is created can vary based on the issue and the person. More importantly, not everyone will be inclined to do something with the knowledge they have acquired. At the least, it is a useful tool for insight. There’s always that possibility that people will proceed to make impacts – in their lives and with their lives.

A warm thank you to Paola for mentioning this event. It was quite useful for my research and the insight I gained allowed me reflect on how my views have been changed.