Both narrative and documentary films play an important role in shaping our thoughts, emotions and attitudes toward the needs of our age. They contribute to our awareness of global issues, create empathy for the underrepresented or oppressed, explore cultural values, help us heal from difficult circumstances, and evolve our visual literacy, aesthetic appreciation, and cross-cultural understanding.
We live in a time of increasingly visual preoccupation and development, in which the medium of film through its various incarnations—cinema, television, the Web, film festivals, and video games—reaches a wide spectrum of people on a variety of devices. The young, especially, rely more than ever on visual mediums to provide education as well as entertainment. Our television sets and computer screens now offer platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, and cable, and allow us to see almost anything we want whenever we want it.
As a collaborative and multi-disciplinary dramatic art, film welds script, story visualization, audio elements, and often historic and literary insights and facts into a complex whole. As viewers, it enlarges our perspectives and takes us out of ourselves; for makers of film, it challenges creativity and calls upon vast capacities.
The Baha’i teachings say that “the drama is of the utmost importance,” recognizing the power and the influence film and the dramatic arts can bring to the world’s people. The potential for film to effect change is enormous.
If we apply Aristotle’s understanding of catharsis related to drama to the medium of film, we see how it can serve a powerful personal and social function. Catharsis (from the Greek katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) purifies and purges the emotions—especially pity and fear—through art. That extreme change in emotion then results in renewal and restoration—and a breakthrough to a new level of understanding and empathy.
Art, particularly drama, allows us to experience previously repressed or ignored emotions, and thus can help to balance or alter our psychological state. Works of a deeply meaningful or tragic consequence, be they live theatrical works or narrative or documentary film, can evoke in us a kind of purging or purification in both individual and collective ways.
Take, for example, films dealing with the Holocaust. More stories keep emerging from that genocidal tragedy—perhaps because humanity is still trying to heal from this deep wound, as we are from various wars, pogroms, and so forth. The IMDb list “The 50 Most Moving Holocaust Films” presents a carefully selected array, including incredibly cathartic films like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Life Is Beautiful, Schindler’s List, and The Pianist.
Because of religious persecution related to the Baha’i Faith in the land of its birth, Iran, many stories will inevitably emerge related to the associated oppression and diaspora, depicting both horrors and triumph. Already several films have begun to appear, such as The Gardener, by Mohsen Makhmalbaf; and To Light a Candle by Iranian journalist and human rights activist Maziar Bahari. Another film, Rosewater, made by Jon Stewart, deals with Bahari’s imprisonment in Iran while practicing journalism during an election. Striking and insightful films like these have effectively prompted discourse and awareness of the need for change in many circles around the globe.
Film also addresses, in both subtle and obvious ways, the need to grapple with the intersection of diverse races. Some of these films are painful to watch, and yet bring us to a greater commitment to work for racial unity. For example, Twelve Years a Slave and Selma, both full of crisis and victory, offer us ample history lessons and motivate us to work for change. The more that diverse races are represented in stories, the more we will embrace the unity of humankind. The film Crash, another good example, portrays people in positive and negative roles across many racial groups.
We have profound opportunities to focus on and tell alternate histories as we create a world of peace, race amity, gender equality, and partnership. As we sensitize ourselves to the various struggles of humankind, they will impel us to create a better world. Films provide a valuable avenue for change, particularly when we cultivate a taste for works from around the world.
In one more example, the recent science fiction film Tomorrowland embeds an important message—that finding dreamers in society who can imagine a positive future means we can create it. Those who come under the influence of the Baha’i teachings will surely be among those who help to lift humanity to its next phase of evolution. Whether as viewers or filmmakers, we can utilize the art of film in our pursuit of creating and maintaining a better world.