Let me entertain you

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A few years ago I attended a film festival and naturally, ran into a few filmmakers, one of which was a really cerebral director with very artistic and Avant Garde influences from Europe, Third Cinema and German impressionism.

We got talking about films and filmmaking, projects and the subject eventually led to, Nollywood, making films in Nigeria and spun into the responsibility of the African Filmmaker.

He believed that there were too many films focused on entertainment, most of which were superficial and added nothing to the culture or society. He believed; African Filmmakers are obliged to use that position and their voice, to make statements with their films, be socially responsible.

The premise of his position was, Africa, and specifically Nigeria, has too many issues for our filmmakers to be focused on just entertainment. Our films should speak to society; shine a light on these issues which make people think therefore inspiring change. To him it was not an option, but a MUST. I quite disagreed with him, but he does have a valid point.

My point of disagreement was that one does not have to be forsaken to fulfil the other. Entertainment and social consciousness don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

The problem with making a movie to send a message is that it tends to be boring and laborious, like a lecture which feels like it will never end, nobody wants to pay to sit through two hours of that. People go to the movies to be entertained and engaged, caught up in a world, vicariously live through those characters.

Samuel Goldwyn producer of one the first feature films in Hollywood, famously said in a memo if you want to send a message, use Western Union. But can you entertain AND make a strong statement at the same time, without it coming off as propaganda or a lecture? Short answer, yes.

Animal Farm and 1984 are two examples, adapted from books by George Orwell. They created such immersive worlds that the term Orwellian was created. “Orwellian” is an adjective describing the situation, idea, or societal condition that George Orwell identified as being destructive to the welfare of a free and open society.

“Equilibrium” and “V for Vendetta” fall under this definition. Both are highly entertaining, while making strong comments about draconian society; the entertainment factor doesn’t suffer and the message is not shoved down the throat, but it lingers in the mind after the credits have rolled. Similarly, Minority Report, Blade Runner, I Robot, Wall E where we see the dangers of humanity’s over reliance on technology.

The films of Dutch Director Paul Verhoven Robocop( 1987) and Starship Troopers(1997) were both highly entertaining crowd pleaser , but were satire, which held up a mirror to society on military power and indoctrination; with Sky Marshall Dienes wearing a uniform and giving rallying speeches which resembled that of Adolf Hitler.

Apocalypse Now and Platoon, show the brutality of war and the toll it takes on both the soldiers that go to fight it, and the natives on whose land the wars are being fought. Stanley Kubrick made three very different films on war Paths of Glory(1986), Full Metal Jacket(1987), Dr Strangelove(1964) which said different things on the subject.

Blackboard Jungle (1955), To Sir with Love(1967), Lean on Me(1987) all had commentary on: growing up in the ghetto, a dismissive school system, academic opportunities, unemployment, disenfranchised youth and the rejects of society.

Spike Lee’s, Inside Man(2006), shone a light on: office politics, racial profiling, race relations, war profiteering and abuse of office but it never skimps on entertainment, upon repeated viewing you notice many of the subtle messages embedded. So, when a filmmaker wants to use movies as a means of passing a message, it has to be weaved into the narrative and almost subliminal in nature.

Not everyone can pull this off, nor should everyone have to attempt to do so. Not everyone will be able to entertain and be profound, as there are different types of novelists, musicians, composers, fashion designers who are capable of different things and cater to the different tastes of audiences, so are there different types of filmmakers.

At the end of the day, a filmmaker should make films they’re passionate about, a story they really want to tell; not obliged to make, not one a committee feels will plug into a trend, or will impress an eccentric demographic.

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