The Art of “Filmanthropy”: Can movies really make a difference?

If a documentary or a film can alter personal or corporate behavior can it also alter politics? That is the question raised by the success of features such as an “inconvenient truth.”

Al Gore’s documentary did as much if not better than any political talk to raise awareness about the alarming environmental problems that our contemporary society is facing.

The documentary received four times as much media attention as the 2001 intergovernmental panel on climate change report. It also grossed 24 million at the US box office and went on to get an Academy Awards. Three months after the film’s release, California passed sweeping legislation to curb greenhouses gases. 

Similarly Michael’s Moore “Sicko”, about the American health care system, did more for public awareness than any other single event in the movement according to Joel Segal, a staffer assisting Congress man, John Conyers on a universal-health care bill.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that as a result of Moore’s documentary 43% were more likely to report that health-care reform is urgently needed. 

Hollywood is today frequently thriving on its power of social engineering. Stars such as Leonardo Dicaprio, Angelina Jolie or Georges Clooney have willingly taken pay cuts and extensively promoted features that further humanitarian or political agendas.

This spring at least eight projects with strong social agendas from directors such as Errol Morris and Morgan Spurlock and Brett Morgen will hit US theatres. Chicago 10, which was financed by “Participant Production”, has backed 39 other movies, among which documentaries as well as features, including Syrianna and the Kite Runner

All its movies have social-actions campaigns. “We want to make social return and commercial return on our investments,” says Participant president Ricky Strauss.

So do movies make a difference? We want to believe they do. We hope they do. At the very least they can make advocates out of supporters as long as we have bold movie directors striving to produce thought-provocative and compelling features and keep drawing audiences into a social and cultural debate.

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