Given the increase in social justice and environmentally flavored films premiering at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, I wanted to ask Sundance pioneer Robert Redford to comment at the opening press conference on whether he felt that film influences public policy, but unfortunately time was cut short and the opportunity passed.
Clearly “Blackfish,” a disturbing expose of SeaWorld’s 30 years of shameful management and capture of orca whales, begs for policy change. It begs for ending such practices, for shutting down SeaWorld and freeing all the Willys. “Blackfish,” named for what Canadian first nations call orca whales, might have been the most emotional film at Sundance. It was painful to hear of mother whales screaming for their babies, and that whale life-spans are cut short in captivity to one-third of those in the wild.
Early in the documentary the whale brain is examined, showing an enlarged region governing emotion and how greatly it extends beyond the human brain’s emotional center. The whale is a super-feeling mammal. According to one of the early fishermen who captured baby whales for SeaWorld, the clever whales would try to trick hunting boats by hiding the babies and splitting them off from the larger group which would swim off in another direction as decoy. Fighting back tears, he said capturing those whales was the worst thing he’d ever done. The film also interviews many trainers and their families and even a former SeaWorld director, keying off horrific ‘accidents’ where whales attacked, and in some instances killed, trainers. SeaWorld has denied any fault in placing trainers’ lives in jeopardy. Never mind that confining such a massive, intelligent, emotional, ocean-ranging creature to a swimming pool might make it insane. Incidents of whales attacking humans in the wild are almost unheard of and never fatal. Lots of tear-wiping and sniffling in the press screening. A call to action if ever there was one, “Blackfish” leaves the viewer with the conviction that no whale should be held captive. Ever.
Sadly, this story is not entirely new. The documentary “The Cove” and the blockbuster “Free Willy” brought widespread attention to the folly of holding whales captive. Still, change has not happened.
Then there was one of the most important, eye-opening films for bewildered American audiences who wonder why it’s gotten so much harder to get by in the last fifty years. Post Occupy, “Inequality for All” recounts what’s caused the US economy to spin downward, and explains the elements needed to regain a robust economy. In short, one gets from the film that nearly everyone in America is struggling on some level, the 99% we are so familiar with. We ARE poorer and less educated than a generation ago, the average American male actually gets paid FEWER dollars than the average male did thirty years ago, while the top 1% have tripled their pay. An interview with one refreshingly candid, ridiculously wealthy CEO revealed that he paid 8% taxes on his earnings last year, while a typical working mom, having trouble making ends meet, paid 30% of her wages. At the core of the problem is the lack of investment in the working middle class. Fewer dollars go to subsidize education, healthcare, homeownership, and local manufacturing. Partly because we didn’t invest in a skilled workforce, manufacturers increasingly build overseas in search of not just cheap labor, but skilled labor. At the same time the tax breaks, given to very rich starting back in the seventies, have resulted in the funneling of wealth to the top 1% and away from the middle class. The middle class has been vanishing. Also, interestingly, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich points out that the top 1% are primarily CEOs. Most doctors, for example, don’t make the cut. The film delivers a course in current economics in an easy format including lively lecture excerpts from the outspoken celebrated economist Reich. The entire film showcases Reich teaching us what has happened. He is nothing short of inspirational, and succeeds in inflaming us over the injustices taking place for decades that are only now becoming understood by the average Joe.
Lastly, the moving thriller “The East,” isn’t a documentary at all but an exciting fictional Hollywood-esque movie about a secret eco-terrorist group that targets CEO’s of corporate giants and their cronies who make their fortunes forsaking environment and public health, by dosing them with their own medicine. Literally. An FBI undercover agent investigating the group quickly becomes sympathetic, as does the audience, despite the group’s weirdo extremist cult ways. Message? Activism is good. Extreme action is called for in cases of cruel, widespread harm caused as collateral for profit by a few fat cats. But the film stops short of blessing violence as the answer, and is careful to show the ugly consequences of eye for an eye ‘justice.’ Entertaining if not influential, “The East” reflects, en pointe, popular sympathies of our times.
All three of these compelling films are well-executed, powerful, moving and reflect public concerns. But still, will they motivate action? Or is it the other way around? Are they a reflection of growing audience concerns making for timely entertainment? We’ll have to see. I’m guessing a bit of both. Documentaries “Blackfish” and “Inequality for All” explain problems that we need to know about in order to fix them. While the feature “The East” makes necessary radical change exciting drama. A sign of activist times. That’s a good thing. I learned so much. It’s like, see these films, have fun, get fired up, and get educated.