November 8, 2013

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Netflix may even offer spiritual advice—who knew?

Cynthia DewesMovies can be much more than mere entertainment. I’ve said this many times, and I’m saying it again: I’m forever struck by the insights, emotional support and even spiritual clarity that films sometimes provide.

Now, I’m not talking about science fiction movies with fantastic plots or characters. Nor talking about strictly action films in which beefy he-men are busting out of their muscle shirts, and the heroines out of their skimpy gowns. These may be exciting and titillating, but they’re just not meaningful. Still, I totally understand the concept of escapism.

Back in the 1930s, films were often funny and always upbeat. This suited the mood of the Great Depression because it distracted people from the deprivations most of them were experiencing. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing through beautiful scenes of luxury let people live in a happier place for a couple of hours. And for only 10 cents!

During World War II, the mood turned serious. Movies displayed patriotism and bravery, both at home and on the battlefield. Sure, they were propaganda, but they made people feel good and verified the righteousness of their cause.

Post-war films grew lighter, with romantic comedies and stories focused on a future full of hope. And so on they went, through the gritty post-war realism of European films and commentaries on social problems like anti-Semitism and racism. Animated films for all ages were made. And while there’s always escapism, now it was only one of many film genres.

Good movies that make us think turn up everywhere. On a cruise, of all places, we saw an unexpected gem called A Place in the Pines. This is a moving example of moral complexity, about a good man, a policeman, who kills someone when his life is threatened. The guilt over this act festers in him over many years until the dramatic climax brings resolution to him and others involved.

The Heartland Film Festival, known as the place for “truly moving pictures,” offers another place to find meaningful movies.

One of this year’s selections, which earned the top award given to a documentary, is called The Network. It’s the true story of a radio/TV station created in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the past decade by native Afghanis and some foreign advisors with media experience.

Their aim was to educate and uplift the Afghan people, most of whom are illiterate and all of whom are still recovering from the destructive rule of the Communists and the Taliban. Using Afghani versions of Sesame Street characters, for example, they are teaching basic literacy, not only to children but to adults.

The station is always respectful of Islam, but at the same time tries to change—or at least draw critical attention to—certain medieval social customs and attitudes in Afghanistan. Chief among these is the position of women. The station purposely airs programs showing capable women at work in professions or other responsible jobs, often alongside men.

The true test of this effort will come when foreigners leave Afghanistan and the media professionals hand over to their young Afghani directors, actors, producers and script writers the task of educating their peers. The hope is that, by then, the Afghan people will not only embrace but also demand their right to truthful information and entertainment.

A good movie can be so much more than just a way to fight off boredom or waste time. That yellow brick road really can lead to enlightenment and reveal the Wizard behind it all.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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