Presenting messages

13 Oct 2009 jane

There’s something on my mind that I want to talk about. How do you, as an activist, an artist or a campaigner, decide to present your ideas? And if you have a particular message – a cause – you want to highlight, how do you get it noticed, and inspire people to action?

I saw recently this film, made by Survival International:

It highlights the story of the Dongria Kondh, one of India’s most remote tribes. Vedanta Resources, a London-based maining firm, are planning to destroy their forests and their sacred mountain to build a vast open-cast mine. Watch it and make up your own mind.

Here’s what I think:
For most of the film, it works very well in telling the stories, in setting up the problem and the struggle. I was watching thinking, this is one of the best films of its kind I have seen – simple reporting, straight-forward and well-written narration, and the film-makers are giving the story time to emerge through the testimony of the people of the Dongria Kondh. Even the difficult task of stating the interdependent relationship indigenous peoples have with their homeland; their continual envelopment in a web of species and times, was well handled. Then, regrettably, the film retreats into comfortable clichés – images of smiling children swinging in the sunlight and of friends hugging each other. A chorus of singers rise up on the soundtrack, reminding me of the music in Gladiator when Russell Crowe returns to the wheat-field afterlife and embraces his slain wife and child. They really couldn’t have made the end any worse, any more saccharine and derivative. I looked up at the screen thinking ‘Why did they do that? Who is this for?’ I really cannot comprehend why the film-makers chose to end such a powerful film so badly – surely those clichés act as walls separating the viewer from the issue, undoing all the good work of explaining the situation up to that point.

Why do this? Who are they intending to reach, whose minds are they wanting to attract, by tacking the end of Gladiator onto their beautiful work? Personally, I think it shows a lack of courage in presentation. Lets put aside what we think reaches out to the masses, the stock images of smiling kids and rousing music, (connected to the need to have a happy or optimistic ending) and lets look anew at how to present this issue.

Another question arises: how do we attract more people into the tent? Or, who is not here?

Was this film a compromise, the thinking being that a happy, comfortable ending will move people to action?

Recently a friend talked about the flatness of television-watching; how he changes channels from a shampoo commercial to an interview with a child soldier to Autumnwatch, and how his thoughts say, ‘uh, there’s that fake science bit in shampoo adverts again, uh, I wonder what the reasons are for that boy to be standing on the road side with an AK47 in his hand, uh, I wonder what Kate Humble really thinks of Bill Oddie!’

It is a difficult task to engage with the flatness audience, who do not naturally linger, invest or interrogate, but rather skim past. The answer to this task is the opposite of the decision I feel the Mine film-makers made – we cannot make work about these issues as if we are filming a commercial.

A film with rigour and integrity, shown on Saturday 10th October during one long day as part of the C-words season, is Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah:

It took Lanzmann eleven years to make and the final edit is over 9 hours long. It was present in relation to Dan Gretton’s work, The Desk Killer.

Dan had invited Alan Boldon and David Williams to introduce the film with him. Here are David Williams’ comments:

Pete Harrison

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