Now showing: crusading films

Can movies change the world?

People in the film world - and even some outside it - like to think so. The changes may be trivial, like the 1934 drop in sales of undershirts after Clark Gable neglected to wear one in "It Happened One Night." In a book on "Psycho," film historian Stephen Rebello says Alfred Hitchcock's legendary 1960 thriller has been linked to "the decline in sales of opaque shower curtains [and] the downturn in motel stays."

But movies may spark substantive changes, too - after all, mass-marketed entertainments have been affecting people's ideas at least since Harriet Beecher Stowe first picked up a pen. Film and video are the most effective such tools yet devised, because of their ability to reach large numbers of viewers and their capacity for getting under people's skins.

"The most amazing thing about films is that they're not just rational," says Bruni Burres, longtime chief of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, opening at Lincoln Center Friday. "They also get people to emote. Audiences are touched or angry or cheered in a collective way. Everyone doesn't feel the same way, of course. But people are moved when they're confronted by real stories about real people, not just reports from a human rights organization."

For a famous example, take "The Thin Blue Line," the award-winning Errol Morris documentary about a Dallas drifter who was serving a life sentence for murder. The film contended he didn't commit the crime he'd been found guilty of - and when it reached theaters in 1988, audience interest and media coverage led to the speedy overturning of his conviction.

The desire to spark this kind of concrete change is what unifies the film-and videomakers who participate in the HRW festival, now in its 14th year. The films and videos in the program hail from 18 countries, from Brazil and Serbia to Iraqi Kurdistan and the US.

One of Ms. Burres's favorite examples of a film that changed a country's social consciousness is "Harmed Forces," an Israeli documentary focusing on two soldiers who say they were afflicted by posttraumatic stress disorder after serving in their country's Lebanese campaign of 1982. After the film's theatrical release and TV broadcast in 1999, Burres says, Israel's parliament changed the category of such veterans from "mentally ill" to "militarily disabled," giving them access to new disability and social-security benefits.

Success stories like this and "The Thin Blue Line" are the exception, but they energize and encourage media makers who'd rather change the world than make a buck.

"Plenty of film- and videomakers are dying to make a difference in some area they care passionately about," says Marian Masone of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who helped organize this year's HRW festival, "and it's surprising how often they can point to changes they really helped cause."

She cites "Spoils of War," which helped several families search out relatives who had "disappeared" during Argentina's "dirty war" in the 1970s. In a similar vein, her colleague Richard Peña points to the 1969 drama "Blood of the Condor," a Bolivian production claiming the US Peace Corps was involuntarily sterilizing Indian women in that country - and leading, Mr. Peña says, to the Peace Corps being ousted from Bolivia.

This year's HRW festival includes numerous films and videos that hope to catalyze real-world effects. "My Terrorist," by Israeli filmmaker Yulie Cohen Gerstel, chronicles an Israeli woman's effort to break the cycle of Middle East violence by forgiving the terrorist who injured her in an attack. "State of Denial," by American director Elaine Epstein, explores the public-health effects of South African President Thabo Mbeki's refusal to acknowledge the widely recognized link between HIV and the AIDS epidemic now devastating the African continent.

The steady production of issue-centered films doesn't mean they will ever be in the majority, of course, or anywhere near it. "Most films that advocate social change do so by attacking the existing social system," says Wheeler Winston Dixon, head of film studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "This is a risky proposition financially, and films are increasingly ruled by the laws of commerce, not art. The fear of alienating anyone prompts studios to opt for escapism rather than social commentary - even when a box-office hit like 'Bowling for Columbine' comes along to prove them wrong."

Such trepidations explain why Hollywood's list of crusading movies is remarkably brief. Among them are "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," a 1932 drama with Paul Muni that helped spark penal reform in Southern states; the "Why We Fight" series of the World War II era, which mobilized support for US government policies; and Michael Moore's documentaries "Bowling for Columbine" and "Roger & Me," produced outside the Hollywood system but distributed and promoted by major players in the film industry.

The idea that a movie's effectiveness isn't limited to its on-screen appearance is important to Steve Goodman of the Educational Video Center (EVC), which has been teaching documentary production skills to New York teenagers and teachers for almost 20 years. Examples of its work are highlights of this year's HRW festival. "It changes young people's consciousness when they not only make a video but also become presenters of it," Mr. Goodman says. "They learn that a video isn't only a work; it's a tool for galvanizing a community's attention."

To illustrate this, Goodman points to "Unequal Education: Failing Our Children," an EVC video shown on PBS's "Listening to America" with Bill Moyers in 1992. "It compares the resources spent on two different schools," he explains, "one in Riverdale and one in the South Bronx, just a few miles away. It was aired on the Moyers show, but we also showed it to parents in those districts - in their living rooms, in the schools. Afterward they made big changes.

"When a documentary really has power," he adds, "is when people don't just watch it on television sets as individuals, but consider it as a group. The dialogue that happens around it is crucial, if you're hoping change will happen."

Video and film aren't the only media that matter, Goodman acknowledges, but they're the ones that matter most in today's information-saturated environment. "We teach [in EVC classes] about multiple forms of expression," he notes, "including journalistic writing. But we emphasize film and video, because they're becoming the dominant form of communication in our society.

"Kids grow up with them," he continues, "and [people] can use them to present the stories and voices of their communities in ways that don't rely on a particular level of print literacy. It also helps people look at things in new ways. When you take a sight you see every day - a vacant building, an overcrowded classroom, a metal detector at the entrance of your school - and put it on video, it gives you a fresh, critical distance."

Such videos are unlikely to challenge "Hulk" or "Charlie's Angels" at the box office this summer, as Burres is the first to admit. "Human rights have never seemed very hip," she says, but she finds grounds for optimism in the festival's growing audiences.

"What we try most of all is to get people to question things," she says. "We get hate mail from people on every side of the issues our films deal with. I think that shows we're alive and stimulating thought, and not just confirming what moviegoers want to hear."

The Human Rights Watch International Film Festival continues at Lincoln Center through June 26, and a touring edition will travel to about 30 cities.

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