Movies That Attempted to Make a Difference

On Sunday the 14th of June, Sunday Assembly Norwich – an organisation who live according to the motto “Live better, help often, wonder more”, will be hosting an event examining the golden moments where film has shaped our feelings and lives. The Assembly will be hosted by Cinema City lecturer Nigel Herwin, and he has also written us a marvellous run-down of his favourite movies that tried to “make a difference.” 

There are plenty of political movies.  I could write a long list of all the films featuring American Presidents, from biopics (Nixon) to fictional (Dave), but that would get really tedious.  Equally, another list could be compiled about films which feature trade unions, ranging from positive depictions (Made in Dagenham) to negative (Carry On At Your Convenience – a film which managed to insult the series’ core audience!).  Again, this could get a bit tedious…

What’s more interesting are the movies that attempted to make a difference: the films that make you leave the cinema pumped up and ready to change the world, or, at the very least, applauding what you’ve just seen.  Here’s a list of ten films that tried to make the world a better place.  Not all of them are overtly political, and they all had varying degrees of success in what they tried to do, but all are well worth a watch.  (I should add that the following are all personal choices, so apologies for any obvious omissions!)

Strike (Russia; Director: Sergei Eisenstein, 1924)
Described as a film to inspire action not reflection, this silent movie depicting a 1903 factory strike and its’ violent suppression still packs a hefty punch today.  During the General Strike in 1926, trade unions wanted to show this film to their members but, because it was seen as “subversive” by the powers that be, permission was withheld.  However, it could be shown to the intelligentsia at London Film Societies with the result of much stroking of beards and smoking of pipes.  Not to be outdone, in 1929 a Federation of Workers Film Societies was founded, where the film could finally be shown for the benefit of the proletariat.  Suffice to say, Strike was responsible for the formation of film societies in this country which, in turn, eventually led to modern art-house venues like Cinema City.

The Great Dictator (USA; Director: Charles Chaplin, 1940)
At a time when the Hollywood studios were doing their best to ignore what was happening in Europe for fear of losing their lucrative German market, Chaplin courted controversy in this satiric warning about Hitler.  It contains many sublime moments of clowning – like “Adenoid Hynkel” dancing with the world in his hands – but the closing speech may be too mawkish for some.  This humanitarian plea was later seen as Communist propaganda by parts of the American government and led to Chaplin’s exile to Switzerland.  Rumour has it that Hitler saw the film at least twice.

Hollywood Hegemony’s own film regarding Chaplin and The Great Dictator

Victim (GB; Director: Basil Dearden, 1961)
It’s sobering to think that for much of the swinging sixties homosexuality was still illegal. This film was British cinema’s first attempt at an honest depiction on the subject and a plea for changing the law.  Risking his 1950s matinee idol status, Dirk Bogarde plays a barrister being blackmailed for having a gay affair.  Despite a somewhat coy script, Bogarde insisted on a scene where his character came out to his wife, fearing that contemporary audiences would think that “queer” meant that he had a dicky tummy!  Given an X-certificate (meaning “Adults Only”) on release, Victim now regularly plays on Film4 in the afternoons.  How times change…

A Short Film About Killing (Poland; Director: Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)
Not a happy film but a stunning piece of cinema.  Polish master Kieslowski’s film is a bleak depiction of a motiveless killing, followed by the murderer’s trial and subsequent execution.  There is a clear and uncomfortable parallel between murder committed by the individual and murder committed by the state. This film was instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty in Poland.

Bowling for Columbine (USA; Director: Michael Moore, 2002)
Using the background of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, polemicist Michael Moore explores America’s obsession with guns with bewilderment and humour.  Memorable moments include Moore opening a bank account and receiving a free gun in return!  This film did result in Kmart superstores phasing out the sale of handgun ammunition.  Success!  However, Moore’s equally controversial 2004 follow-up, Fahrenheit 9/11, didn’t prevent George Bush from being re-elected as President.  Oh well, can’t win ’em all…

Super Size Me (USA; Director: Morgan Spurlock, 2004)
This hilarious documentary is clearly inspired by Michael Moore’s style; indeed some critics unkindly suggested that Spurlock took Moore’s diet and made it into a film.  For thirty days, Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food, super-sizing the meals when staff offered this option.  The result?  He puts on weight, experiences mood swings and sexual dysfunction.  The other result is that McDonald’s drop the super size option on the film’s release.

Moolaadé (Senegal/France; Director: Ousmane Sembene, 2004)
Certainly the most feminist film on this list.  Barely known in this country, Sembene is the founding father of African cinema and an explicitly political filmmaker, not afraid to tackle controversial subjects.  Set in a small village in Burkina Faso, Moolaadé details the confrontation between male and female, tradition versus progress as four young girls seek sanctuary from the ritual of “purification”, the villagers’ term for female circumcision.  By shedding light on a hitherto taboo subject this film started a change of attitudes toward female genital mutilation, and although it’s harrowing in parts it is ultimately a triumphant, uplifting film.

Pride (GB/France; Director: Matthew Warchus, 2014)
Another triumphant, uplifting film.  While it doesn’t set out to change the world it documents the time when two worlds collided.  Based on true events, it tells the story of the Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners campaign in 1984, and how two very different communities come together and form a successful, and mutually beneficial, alliance.  This film truly exemplifies those Sunday Assembly phrases “Live Better” and “Help Often” and, even, “Wonder More”!

Cathy Come Home (GB; Director: Ken Loach, 1966)
A bit of a cheat here as this isn’t a film but a BBC play!  However, it is directed by Ken Loach, the left-wing conscience of the British film industry.  When broadcast, this play hit viewers hard with its’ gritty depiction of unemployment, homelessness and mothers having their children taken away by social services.  As a result, the charity for the homeless, Crisis, was formed the following year.  Sadly, Loach has recently stated that today’s housing situation is even worse than it was in 1966…

Rocky IV (USA; Director: Sylvester Stallone, 1985)
The Cold War is fought out in the boxing ring to the accompaniment of eighties’ power ballads!  Spoiler: our eponymous hero beats the steroid-infused Russian Drago and then does a Chaplin – he makes a speech about how people can change for the better.  Four years later the Berlin Wall comes down.  Coincidence?  I think not!  (Actually, I do…)

Nigel Herwin lectures at Cinema City and wears a hat.
Come along to Sunday Assembly Norwich  on June 14th  10.30 to hear Nigel talk about golden comedy moments in film, sing along with us to some film-themed songs, and have a chat over tea & cake afterwards.  Sunday Assembly is an international movement whose motto is ‘Live better, help often, wonder more’. Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that celebrates life and aims to build a local community group that’s radically inclusive. The Norwich Assembly has been going for  6 months, and there are newbies every month so come along if you’re interested.


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