Forward and Acknowledgements:

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” – Leo Tolsto

While there were so many things I wished to speak on in this paper, there is only so much that can be covered; both within the length of the paper itself and in the short period of time which I spent learning about each country I visited and the filmmakers I encountered there.  In the beginning, I imagined myself as an explorer, discovering what no one had yet thought to look for as I traveled the world.  I ended my expedition more humbled than triumphant.  I learned how to listen to what people had to teach me instead of consuming myself with my own intellect.  Before I consume you with what I have to say, I wish to acknowledge all those who helped me along my journey—academically, mentally, spiritually, and physically.  While I ended a little worse for wear in many ways, I think I came out with more tolerance than when I began.  Thank you.

How The World Is Divided In Two: An Examination Of Social Justice Filmmaking, Economic Investment, Global Autonomy, And Individual Ability

When I started this semester, I set out in search of an undiscovered film movement in the Global South.  Something to inspire and inform my future work as a filmmaker; an alternative to the corporate, colonial, patriarchal, heterosexual, capitalist, Western behemoth that is Hollywood and, in many cases, Western filmmaking in general.[1]  In many ways, I found myself disappointed in my findings.  I did not discover any sort of global movement or recognizable body of work by a collective of filmmakers.  I even struggled to find a national movement in any of the countries I visited.[2]  Perhaps some of the reasons behind this failure were because there wasn’t a film movement to find, I wasn’t asking the right questions to the right people, or because technology is rapidly evolving to the point that what qualifies as a film or filmmaker has changed, complicating what might qualify as a film movement.[3]  I believe that, in fact, my research reflects all three of these conditions.  That does not mean my research was unfruitful, however.  What I discovered can broadly be divided into two categories based on economic investment, purpose, and audience; films which had Western financial backing and those which did not.  The function of this paper is to outline this divide with examples I encountered traveling in Nepal, Jordan, and Chile in a way which represents economic disparity and representational injustice.[4]

Before I go on though, I would like to first clarify what I meant by “social justice filmmaking” and what I was originally looking for, having discovered that the way I phrase things influences the types of answers I receive.  To do this, I must provide a bit of background on my interests and influences.  I have a strong belief that for films to do much good in the world—either socially or in any other areas such as environmentally—they need to be seen.  Cinema has been influencing popular culture for decades.  This can have a positive or negative effect, such as the conversations and awareness of the AIDS epidemic and stigmas that people who suffered from AIDS had to live with which came from the popular release of Philadelphia (1993), or the rise in shark hunting after the 1975 film Jaws was released.  The reason these films had such a large effect was that they were big box office films.  Films which have inspired me personally are Hotel Rwanda (2004) and The Imitation Game (2014), both of which were inspired by true stories and centered around issues of violence.  However, while these are the films I have fallen in love with, I know that they have a distinctive storyline that does not represent all cultures or perspectives.  I was hoping to find something even more inspirational from the Global South to inform my own views of what social justice filmmaking could be.  This assumption that cinema from other parts of the globe might have a more diverse and effective method of storytelling was based on my background in film theory.  I have studied film movements such as Third Cinema, African Diasporic, Czech New Wave, and Italian Neorealism.  I have mixed feelings about the effectiveness of some of their content, but in some ways, I believe that this is in part because I have been conditioned to expect a story arch with some variation of the hero’s journey in it.  This is not a standard in other areas of the world.  I find that these movements unsettle me in a way that Hollywood film often fail to do.  So, when I said I wanted to research “social justice filmmaking,” what I meant was I wanted to learn about non-Western narrative films whose themes centered around social justice issues unique to where the film originated (or at least expressing a unique perspective on global issues).  While I do have a few examples of this type of work, my research primarily did not lead me to what I was looking for.

Originally when I started, I felt (and in many ways still feel) that for a movement (or film) to truly be centered in social justice and authentically from the Global South, it would need to be locally funded and produced.  A large part of creating a film that reflects the community it is coming from has to do with getting funding from that very community so that the agendas can be aligned.  It is also my personal belief that this is a more ethical filmmaking method because the community has control over and investment in anything they produce.  Instead, what I found was a dichotomy of either films funded by and/or produced by the West, or unprofessional social justice documentary style films being produced for primarily online consumption on platforms such as YouTube.  In countries such as France and Germany, the state provided funding for local filmmaking which allowed film communities there to flourish—giving us movements such as German Expressionism and French New Wave Cinema.  The countries I traveled to—Nepal, Jordan, and Chile—do not have the financial resources to provide much help for things such as filmmaking with few exceptions.  In my research, I only have two exceptions to speak of, in fact.  A grant through the Royal Film Commission in Jordan and a film which was completely financed by South American production companies.

The Jordan Film Fund from the Royal Film Commission in Amman, Jordan is a grant “to support the development, production and post-production of cinematic feature narratives and documentaries, in addition to funding the production of short and animated films” “as well as develop the independent film industry and contribute to its sustainability, especially in Jordan.”[5]  This fund totals 250,000 JODs—roughly the equivalent of 352,000 USD—for Jordanian filmmakers.  This doesn’t amount to much though if you consider that the average for a Hollywood blockbuster in 2007 was $100,000,000.[6]  The other example I found that sits outside the dichotomy of Western funding or unprofessional filmmaking is a narrative film funded by South American production companies called Violeta Se Fue a Los Cielos, or Violeta Went to Heaven.  This film focuses on the Chilean cultural icon, Violeta Parra—a folk singer and composer, as well as artisan of other cultural arts such as tapestry making—who worked to preserve the artistic traditions of Chile until she committed suicide in 1967.[7]  While funding for the film did not come entirely from inside Chile, it was regional from Brazil and Argentina.  As a result, the film had a distinct feel.  The storyline is nonlinear and uncentered, with the filmmakers instead choosing to utilize leitmotif—a recurrent visual theme—to examine and highlight the kaleidoscope of her life.  The film did not do well in the American box office (although this can greatly be accounted for by its limited release) but won several awards in both South American and international film festivals including winning the World Cinema award for Drama at the Sundance Film Festival.  While I cannot make a sweeping generalization based on this film and my prior education on various global film movements, I do see that state or locally funded films tend to focus on culturally specific stories, themes, and storytelling methods instead of following a generic hero’s journey storyline like Hollywood films do.[8]  If every story is the same, it often only reflects one point of view, therefore failing to address social justice issues because those are created in diversity. 

Tour of the Jordan Media Institute

A much more common theme throughout my research, however, was Western-funded “social justice” filmmaking.  My first encounter (unsurprisingly, since it was the first non-Western country I visited) with this was in Nepal.  When I arrived, I was eager to begin my research.  The first full day I was there, I brought up the topic with one of the country interns, Astitwa.  After informing me that he himself was a filmmaker, he directed me to other staff members who had worked in film.  In particular, he suggested I speak with Bishal Rajbhandary—the resident photographer on the Nepal portion of the program.  A few days later, I sat down with Bishal to discuss his work.  He immediately started telling me about the documentary he had worked on as a director of photography in rural Western Nepal about the Nepali tradition of Chaupadi—exiling womyn during their periods.  The documentary took place in a village where the practice had supposedly been banned and abandoned through Western educators coming in and teaching the villagers about reproductive health.  However, as I spoke with Bishal, he explained that the “documentary” was commissioned by organizations in the European Union through an advertising agency called Key Advertising. The film was meant to be shown in the European Union to demonstrate how effective their programs in Nepal were and to help raise more funding for further endeavors there.  Bishol explained that the documentary was a lie though; that if you only spoke to the adults, they would say the same lines over and over about the practice and insist that they did not enforce Chaupadi anymore.  As Bishal spent more time in the village though, he began speaking with the children who had not received the same “education” as the adults.  They informed him that Chaupadi was still practiced in the village.  Bishal informed me that he wanted to go back and make a film that will expose how ineffective the European Union has been on this issue, but there are no funds for films like that.  To me, this is an example of how filmmaking is failing to address social justice issues, pressing an agenda instead of letting the community speak for itself.  While I do find it unlikely that a community would highlight something as a problem if they did not believe it was, there are others such as Bishal and those who are working with community members throughout Nepal that could perhaps be empowered to explore the issue through filmmaking given the financial opportunity.

I have observed that financing and social justice issues often come into conflict when addressing issues caused by the West.  Of course, there is no way I can say what would be made if financing came from local communities, but I found other films catering to international audiences with Western perspectives.  In particular, I found The Parrot, directed by Amjad Al Rsheed, a mild critique of a tragic situation.  In the film, an Arab Jewish family is moved into one of the recently vacated houses in occupied Palestine after the partition in 1948.  While they struggle with the transition and demonstrate a palpable tension, the film does not address Western Intervention, Palestinian views (even though the director is Palestinian), or violence.  The funding came from a competition Amjad won through the Robert Bush Foundation.  While the topic was inspired by his grandmother’s experience, the film was made to be light exposure to an international and Arabic audience who had polarized views on the conflict.  More than that, the film was a stepping stone for him to get exposure in international competitions, so he could find funding for his full-length projects—funding he needs to receive from abroad because Jordan “doesn’t have a film industry.”[9]

Holi with Astitwa

In Chile, I was introduced to a film which was also mild on the subject of corruption.  The 2012 film No, directed by Pablo Larraín, is about the 1988 Chilean election campaign urging people to vote “no” to another 8 years of Pinochet’s rule in Chile.  When watching it, one of the first things I noticed as the opening credits faded in and out on the screen was the company Participant Media in large bold letters.  I had mixed feelings as a response to this since I am familiar with the American company.  I happen to be a fan of Participant Media, as they focus on social justice issues, and even put their money where their mouth is such as their journalism grant for writers in association with their 2015 crime drama Spotlight—focused on the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe who uncovered the rampant molestation of kids in the Catholic Church by clergymen.  While I am a personal fan of the company, their repertoire is very Western with films such as The Help (2011), The Kite Runner (2007), North Country (2005), and Our Brand Is Crisis (2015).  Internationally focused at times?  Yes.  But these films cater to American perspectives on how a film should be organized, and how it should pack a punch when it comes to issues.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that No fought this model by taking a South American form of filmmaking (perhaps this is a broad generalization, but all the films I have seen which originated in South America have a sort of dry, flat storyline with a scattered approach to chronology and a decentralized character arch).  In truth, I feel inadequately prepared to analyze this film, because, despite its Western funding, it was not made for me.  In fact, I had considerable difficulty following the plot even with the history I had learned upon arriving in Chile.  Yet my Western bacground urges me to identify that without clarity, I question if the film can be effective as a tool for social justice.

One project I encountered on my travels which I was initially excited about but was disappointed in upon further investigation was a small documentary that Lenin Bista showed me—a film of his own making which he published on YouTube and intended to distribute to education institutions to educate youth on the 10-Year War in Nepal.  Lenin, a national figure for his involvement in the politics and rights of the Maoist child soldiers, was charismatic and inspiring when I met him.  He talked about being a child soldier and the role education played in that.  I was immediately interested, as it was a topic I myself had written on without the help of other academics.  Talking after, I informed him that I was interested in returning to make a film with him on the topic.  He proudly informed me that someone was already making a film about the issue with him and that it was to premiere in the next couple weeks.  I excitedly asked if I could interview him about it for my research, and he agreed.  Upon returning for the interview though, I was disappointed to find that his definition of a film was 5 minutes in a BBC news segment, and the small video he had made with footage he had taken from rallies.  These were hardly the great films I was hoping for.  Between the anticlimactic “films” and the language barrier, my foray into research started with disappointment, and in my opinion, hardly improved.

This leads me to my conclusion.  I feel it’s poetic to start with both my high and low point in my research.  There is so much filmmaking out there to be excited about, but through misinterpretation, misguided expectations, and the global economy I didn’t find what I set out looking for.  Instead, I found the normal people who were trying to express themselves through a medium which can be heard.  Perhaps this is the true social justice nature of filmmaking today.  It gives people a voice who otherwise couldn’t be heard, certainly not beyond their community.  I just wasn’t ready to hear them.  Moving forward with my research and filmmaking, I need to be open to this new possibility in the film world. Perhaps I can even let it inspire me as I start creating my own work.

Meeting Lenin Bista

[1] When referring to Western filmmaking it is important to recognize that all film movements are unique, based on location, time, culture, and other factors.  This does not mean that film movements are exclusive.  For instance, the revolutionary film Battle of Algiers is an Italian Neorealist film.  Battle of Algiers depicts the truth of guerrilla warfare and the tragedy that often comes from it.  The film was banned in France for 5 years because of its unflattering betrayal of the French Armed Forces and the reason behind the unofficial war.  This example is to say that not all Western films or film movements support Western methods of control.  Some can in fact challenge Western perspective on the world.

[2] To say that a film movement in an individual country instead of a continent or generalized “third world” is reflecting thinking about the similarities of countries and communities in the global south.  In fact, each country’s society was so different as I visited Jordan, Nepal, and Chile that I find it difficult even to write about the three in general terms in this paper.  It is therefore that I need to explain that while examples in this paper are drawn from different places for the same point, I explain these are individual examples that do not have the power to reflect an attire industry, genre, community, region, or country.

[3] My original thesis revolved around the concept of technological innovation and its effect on the global film industry.  However, I felt my research was insufficient to back up this claim, and the topic did not address economic disparity and representation in a fashion which felt appropriate for a semester focused on “social justice.”

[4] While I did research in the United States and have valid examples of social justice filmmaking, the thesis of this essay hinges on both the imagined and real divide between the West and the Global South.  For this reason, I will not be discussing my research in the United States of America.

[5] “From the Royal Film Commission: Research on Jordanian Films,” e-mail interview by author, April 12, 2018.

[6] Annie Mueller, “Why Movies Cost So Much To Make,” Investopedia, June 13, 2011, , accessed June 20, 2018,

[7] Violeta Parra Went to Heaven, dir. Andrés Wood, perf. Francisca Gavilán (Milano: Mondadori, 2014), accessed June 10, 2018.

[8] I do believe that Hollywood filmmaking is also a reflection of culturally specific stories, themes, and storytelling methods, but in this instance, we are looking for things to contrast Hollywood since it the major Western player.

[9]“Interview with Amjad Al Rsheed,” interview by author, March 28, 2018. 

“Interview with Bishal Rajbhaudary.” Interview by author. February 16, 2018.

“Interview with Lenin Bista.” Interview by author. March 2, 2018.

“Interview with Amjad Al Rsheed.” Interview by author. March 28, 2018.

“From the Royal Film Commission: Research on Jordanian Films.” E-mail interview by author. April 12, 2018.

Willis, Acacia. A Conversation with Astitwa. April 2, 2018. Katmandu.

No. Directed by Pablo Larraín. Performed by Gael García Bernal. Chile: Participant Media, 2012. DVD.

Violeta Parra Went to Heaven. Directed by Andrés Wood. Performed by Francisca Gavilán. Milano: Mondadori, 2014. Accessed June 10, 2018.

Mueller, Annie. “Why Movies Cost So Much To Make.” Investopedia. June 13, 2011. Accessed June 20, 2018.

Leave a Reply