Auteurs who walk a thin line bifurcating commercial viability and staying true to their artistic visions, have often held a mirror to society, and used the medium to highlight the hypocrisies of our times. On the rare occasion, they’ve offered filmgoers the curiosity to look closer and make informed decisions.
The new film The Trial of the Chicago 7, which was released bang in the middle of one of the most polarising elections in American history, is a case in point. The period courtroom drama set in the US in the late 1960s, chronicles a group of anti-Vietnam War activists, who are charged with conspiring to incite riots at a Democratic Convention. The narrative presents a searing indictment of the abuse of civil liberties such as the freedom of assembly and expression; and the right to equal treatment, and fair trial. The timing of the film’s release is quite telling – amidst an election season that was preceded by an outrage over rampant racism and white supremacy in the US, following the murder of George Floyd. While the film has a perspective of its own, it might be an exaggeration to file it under propaganda. However, the medium per se owes a huge debt of gratitude to that notion of political propaganda.
For, it was propaganda that helped fuel the rise of cinema as a popular, and easily understandable means of communication for the masses. Even over a century ago, filmmakers banked on the power of the moving image to drive home the message of those in power. In 1915, US filmmaker DW Griffith created a furore with his Civil War-set film The Birth of a Nation, which showcased African Americans in a poor light and extolled the virtues of the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group. Later, Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, in his silent film The Battleship Potemkin, (1925) glorified the ideals of communism and experimented with the impact of film editing on audiences to evoke the maximum emotional response – empathy for the oppressed and hatred for the overlords. A decade later, Leni Riefenstahl, a Nazi sympathizer and German filmmaker directed Triumph of the Will, which depicted Hitler as the one who would return lost glory to Deutschland.
However, what once began as propaganda tool was soon absorbed into the collective cultural fabric of nations, as a genuine expression of artistry and socio-political awareness, and possibly even entertaining audiences while they were at it. The Bengali neo-realists such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen inspired the likes of K Balachander, Mahendran and Balu Mahendra in Tamil Nadu, who went on to invent a whole new grammar for Tamil cinema – embracing socio-political undertones, that depicted traits of gender parity and women’s liberation, even before it became fashionable and progressive to talk about them in India.
On the global front, films such as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) led to the creation of The Shoah Foundation, which was instrumental in bringing back the conversation surrounding the Holocaust and the reparations that need to be made. On a more intimate scale, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993) helped open the topic of AIDS and LGBTQI rights in households the world over. Of course, thousands of anti-war films, feel-good films and love thy neighbour films later, the world still finds itself in a mess of constant conflict, strife and misery. But that is by no means a signal for serious filmmakers to abandon their posts and withdraw into their shells. The world needs more stories, and it needs even more storytellers who are unafraid of speaking the truth. In spite of the evidence tipping the scales in favour of indifference and mediocrity, cinema remains a most powerful medium of expression. And it’s essential that those wielding this power, do their bit to ensure some sense of equanimity and justice is restored in these troubled times.