‘The Greeks were art house, the Romans were multiplex’

Filmmaker Josh Appignanesi on the problem with the 'art house ghetto' – and why proselytising directors fail their audiences.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Culture

spiked is the online partner of the Battle of Ideas, the two-day festival of debate that will take place in London on 28 and 29 October 2006. In the run-up to the Battle, we will publish a series of taster interviews with some of the speakers and participants. In the fourth in the series, Nathalie Rothschild talks to film writer and director Josh Appignanesi, who will be speaking in the session Can films change the world? on 29 October.

My first encounter with Josh Appignanesi at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival was quite an unsettling experience. That is when I saw his debut feature Song of Songs, which has since won international critical acclaim. Appignanesi is a filmmaker who does not shy away from exploring difficult subjects – faith, desire, trust are all bound up in one film – through a cinematic language which is not easily accessible. Song of Songs, a film set in an Orthodox Jewish community in north London, is about a masochistic brother-sister relationship. Ruth (Natalie Press) returns from Israel to care for her dying mother; the mother wants to be reunited with her son David (Josh Chalfen), but he is estranged both from his religion and his family.

Demanding concentration, reflection and self-scrutiny from the audience, Appignanesi’s work is not an easy sell. So while unsettling, it is also a relief to those who like to be challenged by cinema and other art, and not, as is all too common today, have opinions and messages hammered home or presented in such a straightforward manner that we are only left with two choices: accept or reject.

Appignanesi is currently teaching film in Italy. I asked him what he makes of the recent boost in ‘campaigning films’, which, in my mind, do not leave much room for that unsettling feeling I got from Song of Songs, because they are so obviously opinionated and stark in their representation of right and wrong – in other words, films that explicitly deal with ‘issues’ and unashamedly try to convince their audiences of a certain viewpoint. These include factual films like Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth, which covers global warming (1), and feature films such as Stephen Gaghan’s oil industry thriller Syriana (2).

‘Well, propaganda works’, replies Appignanesi. ‘If you want to emotively dramatise a one-sided position and you are a good filmmaker, it can be very effective. I don’t think anyone should be in a position to dictate which films can or cannot be made and I do get something out of self-consciously polemical films as well as self-consciously entertaining ones. But art is probably the only thing which enables us to suspend our judgements, so one worry is that films with proselytising intent fall into the trap of reproducing a language of judgement rather than achieving the suspension of judgement one might hope for. Film is an immensely powerful medium and, as such, it can also be used to close down critical thought.’

Participant Productions, which brought out An Inconvenient Truth and Syriana, as well as George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, about news anchor Ed Murrow and the McCarthy era (3), and Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, about the evils of the fast food industry, also strongly believes in the power of film. The slogan on its ‘social action website’ is: ‘Movies have the power to inspire. You have the power to act. Participate!’ Each film has an accompanying campaign and Participant Productions founder Jeff Skoll was in the 2006 ‘Time 100: The people who shape our world.’

While there is nothing wrong with trying to win people over and to inspire political activism – whatever the chosen medium for doing so – using a film merely as a technique to project an agenda and conjure a mass audience often means that the movie will not have much artistic merit. Instead, the measure of its success lies in the number of converts it generates – audiences for An Inconvenient Truth have openly spoken about being ‘converted’. Films can literally make people see things from a new perspective, but being preached at by moralising filmmakers is off-putting rather than inspiring.

Appignanesi’s main worry, however, seems to be that proselytising films can be effective in converting people and that ‘converts tend not to want to be changed again’. Yet films are not immune to the basic human capacity of critical thinking, so converting people is not a straightforward process, and it can always be reversed. Appignanesi recognises the responsibility of the artist in this process. ‘I don’t believe there is such a thing as passively “reflecting” the world; the artist is responsible both for reproducing and reflecting his judgements on the world, and at the same time changing that judgement either subtly or violently.’

‘It’s true’, Appignanesi continues, ‘that film all too often closes down thought, but a responsive filmmaker who is aware of the power of the medium can do the very opposite’. Appignanesi sees irresponsive art – ‘art that has already made up its mind, and yours’ – as irresponsible.

It is hard to imagine a world without films, photographs and documentaries and it is equally hard to imagine a world in which these images would have no impact. Appignanesi points out that ‘it’s not that films have changed the world; they are part of the world so they automatically change it.’

So it seems obvious that films have an impact and can affect change in how we feel, think and act. A relatively trivial example is when undershirt sales in the US plummeted after Clark Gable appeared without one in Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night. Though this did have a very real effect on undershirt vendors, it was not quite a radical social transgression.

So can films be difficult, challenging and demanding, and at the same time appeal to a broad audience? Appignanesi thinks it is a problem that less commercially lucrative films only ever reach the ‘art house ghetto’. He explains how a teacher of his compares Greek and Roman theatre, explaining the former as ‘a cathartic and emotional journey that refreshes the audience’s moral sense and place in the community’, while the other ‘was a spectacle of sex and violence pitched to the lowest common denominator of entertainment. The Greeks were art house, the Romans were multiplex.’

Appignanesi’s latest film Ex Memoria, a 15-minute short funded by the biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust’s Sci Art award, has been taken not just beyond art house theatres and the film festival circuit, but beyond cinemas in general. ‘A kind of liquid, post-Tarkovskian vision of an old woman with Alzheimer’, Ex Memoria is being shown to care workers around the UK and comes with a study pack prepared by the Bradford Dementia Group. The study material includes advice on how to communicate with people with dementia and information about the Holocaust and wartime Poland, which the main character experienced in her youth. So is Ex Memoria, having been produced for a particular audience and with a particular intention, a ‘campaigning film’?

‘I didn’t originally conceive the film as intended to raise debate among care workers, but when I realised it could be used that way and there was a potential source of funding to make it, I started working with the Wellcome Trust and with specialists at the Bradford Dementia Group. This was a happy case of mine and the funder’s aims paralleling each other very closely. The film would not have turned out differently if hadn’t been supported by them. It’s a sustained piece of observation, an immersion in the experience of this woman with dementia with long passages of the camera never moving away from her face, staying in her bubble of experience. This observational mode forces the audience into a suspension of judgement. I do think attention to detail can act as a kind of antidote to judgement, and certainly to prejudice.’

While filmmakers should not have to restrain themselves from passing judgement on the world, they have to be prepared for the inevitability of their work taking on its own life once it is with the audience. Indeed, the responsibility of the filmmaker is great, but putting one’s work in the public realm always has consequences. Surely, if filmmakers have faith in the importance of their ideas being out there, they will also see that it is worth dealing with the consequences that crop up? Yet moralistic films that portray the world in black-and-white are often the outcomes of efforts to avert nuanced interpretations. That is why films that are campaigns rather than works of art can only really be judged on their political merits.

Nathalie Rothschild works on the editorial team of spiked. She is chairing the session Can films change the world? at the Battle of Ideas.

Continue the debate about whether films can change the world at the tiscali/Battle of Ideas discussion board here.

(1) See Daniel Ben-Ami’s review of An Inconvenient Truth: Global Warming: time for a heated debate

(2) See Karl Sharro’s review of Syriana: An anti-political thriller

(3) See Brendan O’Neill’s review of Good Night, and Good Luck: George Clooney’s black-and-white politics

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today