How films and television can be drivers of social change

How films and television can be drivers of social change

Saudis attend the "Short Film Competition 2" festival at King Fahad Culture Center in Riyadh. (File/AFP)

It had been quite a while since I last saw a feel-good film, but Bollywood’s recently released “De De Pyaar De” (Give Me Love) hit the sweet spot. 

Alluring 50-year old Ashish is a separated father of two, who lives in London and is a successful venture capitalist. He falls in love with the chirpy, attractive 26-year-old Ayesha, and they decide to fly over to the serene Himalayan resort of Kullu Manali so that they can meet Ashish’s family. Upon arrival, he is met with a cold welcome from his estranged family, especially his daughter, who struggles to accept her distant father. He is also reprimanded for his decision to marry a woman as young as his daughter. 

The film has a convivial tone to it, considering it’s a rom-com, and is laced with stirring music and breathtaking filming locations. Yet it explores deep social issues that are affecting Indian society nowadays: The struggles that separated couples face with moving on whilst jointly caring for their children, accepting that love should be unconditional and not guided by age or class and, most importantly I felt, how people can grow out of some relationships.

Films are living, animated museums curating society’s dreams, values and stories. Though they are portrayed as entertainment, they convey thought-provoking messages and often challenge our perceptions and actions. These unique qualities allow films to have a transformative effect on society. In 2011, the British Film Institute commissioned a research study on how film contributes to culture in the UK. It revealed that 63 percent of respondents felt that certain films made them ponder some difficult or sensitive issue, while 14 percent reported that a film had inspired them to take some form of action. Encountering certain films has also shaped people’s sense of identity, given them role models, promoted values and ideals, altered their attitudes, and made them reflect on some of the most pressing issues facing their societies.

Films are living, animated museums curating society’s dreams, values and stories.

Sara Al-Mulla

 

Television has also played a multifaceted and powerful role in influencing our sociocultural milieu. During the Second World War, the UK’s Ministry of Information commissioned numerous educational and morale-boosting films, whilst encouraging other producers to do the same. On the other side of the Atlantic, television has portrayed changing social values since it first gained popularity after the Second World War. For example, during the 1950s, many Americans wanted to settle down and rejoice in the love and stability that family life appeared to offer following years of mass poverty, political unrest and family separations caused by the war. During this booming and optimistic postwar era, the number of traditional nuclear families multiplied. Thus, most TV programs aired during that period dismissed political events and instead favored family-friendly comedies, such as “Leave It to Beaver,” “The Donna Reed Show,” and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”

In the 1960s, however, Americans faced extremely stressful situations, such as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, broadcasters opted to air escapist shows such as “I Dream of Jeannie,” a fantasy sitcom about an astronaut who marries a 2,000-year-old genie, and “Bewitched,” a fantasy series about a witch who marries a mortal man and tries to live a normal suburban life as a housewife.

Social cognizance during the 1970s and 80s prompted TV producers to reflect the significant changes in family structures. Thus, we saw a revival of family sitcoms, but with a modern interpretation of family life, thereby portraying single parents, employed women and more non-nuclear families. One show that really resonated with me was “Full House,” which ran from 1987 to 1995. This warm, comedic show chronicled the life of a widowed father, Danny Tanner, who raised his three young daughters with the help of his rock musician brother-in-law Jesse and his stand-up comedian best friend Joey. The show imparted sensible parenting advice and discussed many important themes, such as the value of responsibility, how to deal with bullying, and the importance of two-way communication.

Often, the craft of writing scripts for television is based on social science research. Leading psychologist Albert Bandura has emphasized the significance of social learning in serial dramas, whereby riveting storylines are portrayed by realistic characters who model positive behaviors and thus end up improving their lives when they make good life choices. For example, in 1975, Mexican television producer Miguel Sabido produced the soap opera “Ven Conmigo” (Come with Me) to promote literacy amongst adults. The plot revolved around adults who enrolled in a literacy class and demonstrated how they managed their lives more positively after doing so. It was a huge success — nearly 1 million illiterate people eventually enrolled in a literacy program to learn to read.

TV producers and broadcasters should be mindful of the impact and influence their programs have on shaping cultures. In the end, people value films for their emotional impact on their lives.

  • Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature
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