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The Future for Social Justice Films

We are giving away 20 free tickets to a phenomenal Masterclass today with leading futurist David Smith on the future of social justice films. Use the code SPFREE to claim your ticket NOW.

  • Social justice is an enormous concept. Issues range across almost everything.

    There's at least two fundimental things that define successful campaigning films. They have enough of an audience and the message breaks out of it's own echo chamber.

    In the main, despite a number of exceptions, it's broadcast television that can reach the unconverted whilst the Venn diagram of social reach on social media, of all kinds, provides a very narrow overlap between those already in the films echo chamber and those for some reason captured as a disinterested or disagreeing audience.

    There's been many great films by great film makers but whose influence remains mostly trapped behind their own lines.

    I don't know about masterclasses or the criteria of awards systems that issue such diplomas, but I do know that it's breakouts that make the difference. Such breakouts have some quality that lifts them into the attention of a society that's constructively sanguine about justice issues and the political and constitutional forces affecting them.

    Most atrocious social and justice issues are sociopolitical, socioeconomic and constitutional. Constitutional essentially means actual law as different to legislation; other than sentiment it's the basis of our societal structures and the most brazenly perverted. It's also perhaps the most challenging to present as understandable, compelling, entertaining and enlightening. Unless made in a way commensurate with a feature drama, people will still regard dystopian governance as normal and even perversely desirable, not so much despite the evidence as it's about attention spans and the lack of connection with conditioned cultural intelligence.

    I've been involved in social factuality films since 1985, whilst every little helps, we need to engage with the widest audience to be effective. I suspect we're going to need a bigger ambition and a bigger budget if we're to break out from the barriers created by our own narratives.

    There's going to be some powerful films emerging soon from alternative resources, social contexts, and business models. The current cultural and economic grip on the means and ideas are either slipping or evolving.

    Such initiators are born, far more than they are taught. Even the cutting edge breakout methods of just a decade ago are increasingly out of date. Because feature factuals can take years from inception to release, keeping up with a rapidly evolving reality has to be a core requirement. Our entrenched presumptions, no matter how earnestly worthy, can be our biggest obstacles.

    2 weeks ago
  • John thank you for that very considered response.

    Looking at your 2 criteria above, my personal view is that there is something about the power of authenticity that causes some films to break out.

    In respect of your very valid point on the audience, David Smith's Masterclass was an insightful look at the past, present and future, particularly looking at the move from the digital age to the intelligence age and how that affects filmmakers and the content we produce. It's fascinating and I highly recommend it. The link is available until September 9th and there are still some free SP tickets available using the link from my initial post for anyone who wants to check it out.

    2 weeks ago
    • I like Jenny Lee's reference to authenticity. It's essential. Indeed any sniff of inauthenticity ought to sink any campaign as soon as it's floated.

      Authenticity without a good pinch of polemic salt is usually too weak to have impact even within its own echo chamber, let alone break out of.

      2 weeks ago
  • Hi John. You’re spot on about the echo chamber audience containing the issue. This category of content creation feels good to be part of, you’ve done your bit, but the only way to do better than self-indulgence is as you said: to find the elusive breakout story. I think films billed as social justice (rather than issues smuggled in) select in favour of viewers who already care passionately about that specific issue, which on the other hand depresses and bores millions of people who only want to be entertained, to find an hour or two of escapism from the frustration of their daily routine. Sadness and anger have their place in real life, and certainly fill up newspapers, but I wonder whether people seek those emotions from cinema and television in the same way they do with fun and fantasy?

    Who else does a SJ project reach? The believer might bring a friend along with them and the message “This must be put right” could get through to that person, but the main difference the SJ film makes is to feed facts and quotes to the person who believes it already, converting no one. It does help them to make a stronger case in some future debate, if they even intellectually engage with people outside their echo chamber, but they may forget where they learned that information.

    Related to this, but not in film making, there’s a kind of mid-Atlantic academic debate about whether higher education should be dedicated to reason (new knowledge) or to social justice (activism for change), with the implication that it cannot do both, so each institution should be honest and declare for one ambition or the other, then future customers can make an informed choice about what they want to be done to them. Should a film title declare in advance what it hopes to do to you, the viewer? No way! People wouldn’t buy tickets! (think about that for a moment).

    My personal view is that if you pursue reason for long enough, you end up with justice. That just takes time, but people are impatient. A valid SJ media project can use knowledge and reason to hasten change, if it pulls off the trick of convincing people who previously didn’t give a toss. That is the trick though, isn’t it? Society (beware abstract concept) has a duty to improve the situation it has inherited. Improvement is a word that sticks in some people’s craw because they think attritional change isn’t fast enough, with Malcolm X amazingly criticising efforts to reverse historic inequality, saying that putting a knife six inches into someone’s back and pulling it out three inches is not an improvement. Although vivid, that sort of observation is more likely to make reformers give up completely than keep working toward normalising equivalence because it is very hard to suppress the selfishness of human nature.

    For a social justice film to explode into the general consciousness, I think it needs to be unbelievably well written because the threshold for breakout seems to be fixed so much higher than other genres. It can’t preach and also has to be entertaining somehow, if you want to do an Erin Brockovich. As an acid test, ask yourself if yours is a story a random stranger would choose to see instead of a mainstream comedy or action headliner. If not, back to the drawing board until you’ve made something the audience wants to sit still and see as much as you want to heap on them. Someone who has more experience in this field is about to tell me I’m wrong and a lot of these projects work beyond their core interest group.

    2 weeks ago