Speeder bikes. https://www.flickr.com/photos/boogeyman13/2704914961/

Putting ourselves in the picture

Film-maker Brendon O’Loughlin looks at the responsibility that comes from our natural empathy.

When I was 10 years old I wanted to be a Jedi Knight.  I had just come out of the cinema after watching Return of the Jedi – and as we travelled back to my home town, I would imagine the shadows of my car thrown up against the sugar cane fields next to the road to be my Speeder bike.  All I needed to do was master the force and I would grow up solving the world’s issues.

Though my life as a Jedi Knight truly hasn’t made much headway since watching the film (I still haven’t been able to master the Force), I can say that the stories we tell as film-makers can engage with people.  The films we create can, and do, define people’s lives.

I am constantly amazed by the human capacity to empathise.  As humans, we are able to walk in the shoes of another, living their hopes, fears and dreams as if they were our own.  It is this empathy that gives story-telling its power. Without empathy, we wouldn’t get the very engagement that drives us back to the cinema again and again.

As film-makers we are able to take this empathy, and supercharge it.  Films are specifically designed to engage with the audience.  They deliver a roller-coaster of emotions, tapping into the ability to empathise and then supercharging with visual effects, sound design and dramatic film scores, bringing an immediacy and acuteness of emotion that real life rarely attains.

But here’s the rub.

If we know that the stories we tell will be engaged with on an empathetic level – how do we do this in a way that reflects our moral viewpoints as Christians?

To put it a different way – if we do our jobs correctly, then the audience will engage with their hearts, living the lives of those we put on-screen.  Should we be a little concerned about this?

When we show a true representation of the world, including the violence, the hate, the gluttony, the lust that abounds in our society, this will cause some members of the audience to vicariously follow the same path in their hearts.

To illustrate the point, I remember the 1989 classic – Die Hard. John McClane (Bruce Willis) runs around a New York skyscraper dispatching the kidnappers one by one until he is left face to face with Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), the leader of the dastardly crew.  After willing John McClane through obstacle after obstacle, I am with him as he faces off against this evil character.  I am wanting Hans to die – and to suffer greatly as he does so.  But when I let these emotions run through my heart, was I at risk of sinning?

Don’t get me wrong – I am not suggesting that the audience can’t separate reality from make believe.  But there is something of a “guilty pleasure” in watching stories unfold on the big screen.  And I wonder if the “guilty” part has something to it.

I don’t believe that we can fall back on the excuse that its all entertainment, and that it doesn’t really matter.  Like it or not, media is an incredibly strong tool in shaping people’s behaviour.  The billions of pounds spent on advertising each year is testament to that fact that stories and media do actually engage people in a powerful way.

But if we steer clear from showing the world as it is, for fear of offending someone, or leading someone into sin, we end up telling saccharin-sweet stories that inhabit a “Pleasantville” world.  Stories that wouldn’t ring true and would struggle to engage with the audience.  We would lose the very power of medium and in doing so, not be able to reach the masses.

When I review the parables of Jesus, I notice that he didn’t shy away from showing humanity as it is, both the good and the bad.  Of course the parables were there to make a moral point, and weren’t primarily for the entertainment of the listener. But Jesus was willing to engage with people on a level that they could relate to.

But in a way, that is the point I am making.  The stories we tell actually share a moral point whether we like it or not.  They can’t be seen as just “entertainment” as I am not sure that that beast actually exists.

Unfortunately, I do not have a manual on how we should handle this tool of great power in a responsible way.  It would be wonderful to have a black and white checklist of things we should and shouldn’t do as filmmakers to ensure our films engage in a moral way.  As it is so many times in our lives, it seems that it will come down to the conscience of the film maker allowing the Holy Spirit to engage with us and our stories to help us deliver our content in a way that is morally right.

The very first step, and probably the most important, is first to acknowledge that the actions and words of the characters we thrust up on the screen do have an effect on the audience.  We should approach the content that we deliver mindful of that fact and act accordingly.

We have in our hands the tools to touch people’s lives in the most powerful way.  We can share the light of Christ in the stories we tell, engaging people in real life, with stories that ring true.  And it can all be done in a way that is not in conflict with the morals we hold, if we are first mindful of our audience, allowing our consciences and the Holy Spirit to influence the decisions we make.

Paul Arnold
  • Naomi Smallwood

    Thank you for this, very interesting read. We should definitely be conscious of the way emotive storytelling is going to affect an audience’s thinking, you’re so right when you say we can’t just write it off an ‘entertainment’ or a ‘guilty pleasure’. Stories are influential and we need to be aware of that!

  • Yes good piece. I was reading just the other day how so many stories, perhaps all, in some way echo part of the ‘big story’ of creation fall redemption & consummation (new creation)…