My father, otherwise stoic, was having a mild breakdown. He looked at me with tear-stained cheeks, as he reached for another tissue. “I had no idea,” he choked.
We were watching Blood Diamond, a popular 2006 movie about the diamond trade in Sierra Leone. With actors like Leonardo Di Caprio, Joaquin Phoenix and Jennifer Connelly, the movie brought to light solemn truths about the violence and corruption related to the diamond trade in that country.
The movie is in the company of other films that focus on social issues, in the same vein as Oscar-winning Spotlight (2016), Selma (2014), Schindler’s List (1993), Hotel Rwanda (2004) and even Rambo (2008) bringing attention to the plight of the Karen people in Burma-films that impact us and motivate us to seek change, even when we are not the ones directly affected.
Why do movies affect us?
Neurochemists have studied the effects of stories on the brain. A well-told story will connect the viewer with the characters in the movie via its story arc, producing a combination of cortisol and oxytocin in the brain. Oxytocin is the same chemical that gives us feelings of happiness, and cortisol is what causes us distress. Even a very simple narrative triggers our capacity for feeling empathy, “putting yourself in another’s shoes.”
Cortisol also focuses our attention on something important. The combination of cortisol (attention) and oxytocin (connection) is the key to provoking response in any presentation of information. Neurochemists have proved what business people, advertisers, educators, politicians and movie producers have known for years: Stories matter.
What real change has happened through movies?
The real question, posited by the character Jack (Joaquin Phoenix) in Hotel Rwanda, is whether people will be inspired to change or will simply “say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then go on eating their dinners.” What differentiates a difference-making masterpiece from a business-as-usual blockbuster?
My stoic father celebrated his 45th anniversary with my mother last year. He asked me to snoop around for clues on what my mother would like to have as a gift. His only stipulations were: no plants (my mother receives plants every year) and no diamond jewelry.
Why no diamond jewelry? I questioned. He responded: “I can’t stomach the thought of killing people just so we can admire a little, shiny rock.”
My father was not alone in his decision. Fear of consumer choices caused the World Diamond Council to spend $15 million on a campaign to combat any negative effects of the movie in their market, and the sale of blood diamonds has decreased from four to 15 percent to less than one percent.
Other movies were similarly effective: Rambo was banned in Burma because of its inspiration to the Karen Freedom Fighters, and Syriana (2005) caused an unprecedented 8,000 emails to be sent to the U.S. Congress regarding oil dependence.
Movies can inspire us to think, to open our minds and to dream, but most importantly, movies inspire us to act. Many little actions combined can have lasting impacts on our world.