FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Leaders in film, journalism, education and politics came together at London’s Royal Institution on Thursday to discuss the role of film and the moving image — and their ability to make an impact in the world and influence current affairs.
British entrepreneur Charles Finch organized the cultural happening, and its accompanying digital platform, with the idea of developing it into a global initiative.
The day’s talks looked at film from a variety of perspectives.
Fatima Bhutto, the Afghanistan-born Pakistani poet and writer, talked about film as a vehicle for propaganda.
“Cinema is a powerful catalyst for change; it’s at the cutting edge of technology and creativity, but there’s one thing it’s not, and that’s innocent,” said Bhutto, pointing to certain CIA-assisted films, which she said attempted to normalize atrocities such as torture or war and dampen people’s urge for resistance.
Bhutto, the granddaughter of Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto and niece of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, also said she believed the Muslim travel ban imposed by President Donald Trump was very much aided by Islamophobic media.
“Movies are coded with messages from the government; propaganda in film tells you who to loathe or fear, it demonizes our enemies and helps justify violent and often criminal behavior,” added the writer. “We are entitled to all types of entertainment, but like with our news, we need to ask who our storytellers are.”
Touching on the issues raised by Bhutto, CNN’s chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour discussed objectivity in media, the need for more storytelling and the culture of sharing film and moving image.
Amanpour recalled the backlash she faced over her coverage of the Syria conflict. “I had to rethink what objectivity is because it’s our golden rule as journalists, and I figured out that it’s telling the truth — which isn’t comfortable. When it’s a violation such as ethnic cleansing or genocide even, you can’t pretend to be neutral because you then become an accomplice,” she said.
The need for more storytelling in daily news reports was another subject Amanpour touched upon when discussing ways to make news compelling while remaining objective.
She pointed to the decline of the impact such media can have in a culture of instant sharing.
“Images can speak — but only for 15 seconds. Andy Warhol’s ’15 minutes of fame’ has turned into 15 seconds. Technology has allowed us to transmit information quickly, but you now feel a moment of rage and move on,” said Amanpour. “Film as a shared experience is under threat.”
Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee who used to work as an English teacher and photographer in his hometown of Damascus, Syria, shared a more personal experience of how film helped him through his journey from Syria to the U.K.
“It made me feel better, I was no longer the refugee fleeing to England, I was the filmmaker,” said Akkad, talking of the risks he took to film when the overcrowded boat he had found himself in was sinking, when he was going through checks at the Turkish border or when members of the Serbian mafia helped to smuggle him from Hungary to Austria.
Other speakers included the feminist writer Germaine Greer, who spoke about working with Federico Fellini and his ability to transform any character into a hero and create captivating images that went beyond narration. “I will remember him as the man who could have rescued cinema from the demands of narration.”
Film director Beeban Kidron, whose initiative to host film clubs in schools saw response from over a million children ages nine to 18 this year, spoke about the importance of film in education and of investing in the humanities.
According to Kidron, her film clubs influence two groups of children, the talented and the gifted who join the clubs to explore their creativity further, and the disaffected, who find “the strength to form opinions and find a safe route back to the more formal part of education.”