07 February 2007

Violence as a commodity

Violence is a deeply-rooted problem in our society. We need solutions to address this problem and, if not wipe it out altogether (which is a noble thought, indeed), at least, mitigate it… so as to protect our loved ones from harm. In the process, if we are able to engender peace and harmony for the community at large, so much the better.

To this effect, I've always believed that films, as a medium, can be used effectively to communicate messages of peace and harmony as they have fantastic powers of influence over us. Yet, when I recall the films I've seen in my life, I'm amazed to count the number of films which contain violence, sometimes as their central idea, providing thrills and entertainment to millions of people around the world. Sadly, I've enjoyed watching many such films… and have accepted violence as a commodity in a package not much different from comedy or romance.

My defence, like everyone else's, of course, is that films provide harmless entertainment. How much damage can films cause in our lives! There's no real proof that violence in films leads to violence in society! After all, it's a few hours of fun and entertainment in the form of a visual narrative, with actors playing the parts. It's a make-believe world. No-one in his or her right mind would take films so seriously.

Then I wondered if I would take the learning and the messages from films like 'Gandhi' or 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' seriously. I wondered if I would consider these films as few hours of entertainment and forget them, if not immediately, then soon after having watched them. It occurred to me then that these films have already had a far-reaching effect in my life… just as they have had, or would have, meanings for millions of people across the world.

In a September 2001 article in The Christian Science Monitor titled, 'Do violent films shape or reflect?' (based on which I've written this post), film critic David Sterritt compared two Hollywood films which I, too, had seen around the same time: 'Three Kings' and 'Rules of Engagement'. On reading this article and recalling the two films, I realised how important it is to separate films with positive messages from the ones carrying messages which are detrimental to our social, cultural and spiritual well-being.

For instance, 'Three Kings' (starring George Clooney, Mark Walberg and Ice Cube) is the story of a trio of cynical American soldiers in the Persian Gulf during the Gulf War (the 1991 US-Iraq war). It's an anti-war film that deals with various issues of war, greed, corruption, hypocrisy, governmental power play, the use of media for propaganda, among many others. The film opens up our minds to the evils of war… even when it's over.

'Rules of Engagement' (starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L Jackson) is a tale of an American army officer charged with the wrongful deaths of Yemeni protestors at a rally while saving the US Ambassador in Yemen. The film portrays Arabs as villains - evil terrorists carrying deadly weapons under their robes, intent on killing White Americans as capitalists. Now, if this wasn't a biased representation of Arabs, bordering on racism, then I don't know what the film was about?

What was worse, 'Rules of Engagement' promoted anti-Arab feelings amongst Americans and others around the non-Arab world! Instead of resolving US-Arab conflicts, and promoting peace and harmony, 'Rules of Engagement' was actually escalating it.

I realised that films like 'Gandhi', 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' and 'Three Kings' were great because they discussed and presented complicated issues such as war, violence and racism in an even manner… not only to give us perspectives to these issues, but also to imbibe in us a sense of morality. And, in turn, give us the courage to face and challenge such issues whenever we encountered them in our lives.

I realised that these films were not just a few hours of entertainment, but, actually, potent carriers of social, cultural and political messages designed by thoughtful filmmakers. They did not package violence as a commodity for box-office profits, nor to satisfy the need for thrill within us. They reached out to us and touched our sensibilities.

[Citation: 26 September 2001 article 'Do violent films shape or reflect?' by David Sterritt in The Christian Science Monitor.]

05 February 2007

Drawing entertainment value from violence

Films like 'Gandhi' or 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' may propagate virtues of nonviolence and racial tolerance, but I wonder if they make up the right diet for the daily film-going audience across the world. For, it seems to me that, the daily film-going audience is more interested in a diet of action, adventure and thrills… with generous doses of murder and mayhem added for effect. Perhaps, murder and mayhem is really the main course!

Given a choice between 'Gandhi' and 'Kill Bill Vol.1', I'm sure film-viewers would lap up the blood and guts offered by 'Kill Bill' rather than spend two hours trying to understand the historical realism of 'Gandhi'. Or, in a choice between 'To Kill A Mocking Bird' and 'Saving Private Ryan', the war-tale 'Saving Private Ryan' would win over all the court-room battles of 'To Kill A Mocking Bird'. You may not believe me, but the box-office figures are on my side

It's no guesswork, nor impulse, that pushes big film industries like Hollywood or Bollywood to produce films which contain violence. Violence is what the film-viewing audience desires and craves for. Tales of revenge, hatred, war and fear are the most popular themes in films. The more disturbing the violence, the more sensational the film and its reviews… helping to draw in larger and larger audiences.

Films depicting violence are a popular form of entertainment in our culture. And, why not! If films are to portray life, they have every right to portray the uglier side of life, not just the wishy-washy romance which all TV soaps offer. After all, violence is as much a part of our cultural identity as romance is. And, big film industries are quick to draw entertainment value from it.

02 February 2007

Creating violence

Why do filmmakers show violence in their films? Is it to create shock for shock’s sake? Or, is it to communicate an important message that violence should be stopped? Or, is it for some other reason altogether? Whatever be the reason, violence in films does get film-viewers to sit up and watch. The greater the shock on screen, the greater the audience impact.

However, that’s not where violence starts, or is created. When there’s a car crash or someone is beaten up by a mob or someone accidentally slips and falls right before our eyes, we stop and look. We hardly ever go to help. But we stop and stare – or perk up to a murder story in the local newspaper or on TV – as long as our interest lasts.

Why do we do this? Well, it seems it’s in human nature to stare at – or listen to – another’s misfortune. It gives us some sort of pleasure. The more gruesome the incident or tale, the greater our interest. A friend of mine had once voiced this aspect of human nature succinctly. According to him, as human beings, we are hardwired to enjoying a tragedy.

Some filmmakers thrive on this human affinity to violence – to watching terrible things happen to our fellow human beings. Murder, rape, serial killings, accidents, bomb blasts, war… you name it, we are drawn to violence as naturally as moths are drawn to fire. With one difference, perhaps: we know when to turn back.

When it comes to violence, our response is not only a physical one, but a mental one as well. That’s where filmmakers stand at an advantage over real-life tragedies. Filmmakers can use script, acting, lights, sounds, music, special colours, graphics and special effects, camera and editing techniques, etc. to heighten the experience of violence.

Thereby, creating their own form of violence in order to win over audiences like us. And, in the process, garner some fame for themselves. But then, where would they be without us?