Dismantling Our Perceptions: The Power of Film

An Unlikely Protagonist

Determined to find the truth, the obstacles she faces come from those who have already settled on their assumptions.
Determined to find the truth, the obstacles she faces come from those who have already settled on their assumptions.

More Persuasive than Propaganda

Film, like literature, has the truly amazing potential to carry people to new places of thought and experience that they would never go otherwise. Unlike political propaganda, persuasive speeches, and even the most cogent arguments in favor of a certain position, film has the ability to help people reach a conclusion based on a story that they wouldn’t have otherwise. In a voluntary study of different issues like the death penalty, euthanasia, abortion and other tricky issues, a circle of some of my friends and some of my acquaintances met once a week to try to determine where we stood on these issues and if there was any moral ground to take on such issues in the summer before we would enter college. It was perhaps the greatest group I’ve ever had the privilege to be in. No one shoved their predigested answer down on our throats or told us the right way to think on such matters. No teacher told us we were restricted from thinking such a way because that wasn’t acceptable. We were free in a way that I had imagined college would be like.

In the week that we were studying the death penalty, I presented clips of the film the Life of David Gale along with a documentary on the death penalty in Texas, found in the special features of the film. The film, already a very powerful story, was one I would recommend to every customer back when I worked in a video store. Consequently, it was the kind of film that, while having a definite bias on the death penalty, presented some pretty cogent arguments to support its stance. After showing the clips to this group, I still remember my shock when many of the people who were formerly undecided about what stance to take on the death penalty immediately adopted the stance portrayed by the story. I don’t think any articles we read had the kind of power that film did in swaying people’s decisions. Yet that’s the kind of power stories have.

In my own experience of film and its power to sway opinions, I still remember how the film La Milpa caused me to almost reconsider my stance on abortion. I had argued with various groups of people and friends on this stance countless times, listened to the way my argument was torn apart while tearing apart the other argument, and been presented with many facts to the contrary. Yet none of these experiences ever caused me to shift my thoughts in the way La Milpa did. The film somehow had the power to make me consider the other side of an argument in the way that had never been presented to me before. I came very close to shifting that day.

One of the films that I am still quite grateful for is Contact. Watching it as a kid, I remember feeling annoyed with the people who didn’t want protagonist Jodie Foster’s character to be the ambassador to the newly discovered extraterrestrials because she was an atheist. As most of the country believed in God, it was argued that her character was decidedly not the best representation for the American people. Now in film, being drawn into this protagonist, I couldn’t help thinking that it was rather silly of the American people in the film to cut her out like that. She had so much heart and so many of the right reasons for being the chosen one.

Sadly, having just watched one of my favorite directors and writers relay a story in which he finally felt accepted as a nonbeliever by President Barack Obama’s inclusion of nonbelievers in an address, I realized again the downside to the religious rights’ emphatic insistence on hearkening back to America’s “Christian” ancestry (ironic because many of the founding fathers were deists). As Joss Whedon pointed out, talking the right brand of religion is something important in terms of politics. Having seen the way George W. Bush galvanized the religious right to vote for him by tossing in keynote issues like abortion and same-sex marriage in the 2004 election, I already knew how politicians could twist the religious right straight into their hand.

This part of Whedon’s statement didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me was Whedon’s acknowledgment of the disenfranchisement of nonbelievers. What? Aren’t atheists generally regarded as vaunted intellects incapable of believing in God because of the higher mental processes? Don’t they have the clout of minds like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking in their camp? Isn’t their main flaw culturally the damnable, smarmy pride that is attached to the image? Given a pick between being labeled as intellectually deficient (as most believers are by the media) and a vaunted, arrogant intellect, which is better? Yet for some reason, politics continues to hold onto religion while disenfranchising people culturally known for thinking? Anyone see the need to watch Contact?

Of course, while I genuinely admire Joss Whedon’s depiction of characters (he’s noted for his strong female characters especially), what I’m especially fond of is the way he doesn’t rely on the keynote flat, stereotypical, judgmental Christian that is often depicted in the media. Having just started watching Firefly, I’m loving the realism Whedon, a humanist, brings to his religious character. For once, he’s a character that isn’t an obvious hypocrite but someone who is genuinely struggling to live as he believes (and not always knowing what that means). In the pilot episode, there is even the kind of meta-commentary to the audience on the incorrect action of making assumptions about a religious character as seen in the captain’s behavior toward the “Shepherd.”

Having just seen the witty film Easy A, I realized just how tired I am of seeing Christians depicted as flat, judgmental, hypocritical beings with no intelligence. Yes, there are undeniable problems associated with Christianity, but that’s not the only story associated with Christianity. Tolkien, consequently, was a devout Catholic who helped convert his friend C.S. Lewis to the faith. And it is impossible to escape the way Tolkien’s faith inspired him and his work. While many talk of Lewis and his conversion along with the loss of his wife and how that impacted his faith, Tolkien’s story is also worth telling. For it was a kind priest that assisted his mother following the death of his father.

That same priest took care of Tolkien and his brother when they were left an orphan. Tolkien’s respect for this priest was such that he willingly agreed to stop seeing the love of his life until he was of age because that’s what the priest thought was best. And there are certainly shadows in the story, but it’s a deeper story of faith than the kind that graces film. Yet Hollywood never tells stories like these. M. Night Shyamalan and his depiction of spirituality is perhaps the least removed from the trite shot of assuming again that Christianity is limited to unintelligent hypocrites. Frankly, that story is hackneyed, weak and so very, very boring. And it’s boring in the way that atheists are confined to an aloof intellectualism cinematically. What? Atheists can’t be portrayed as not giving a hack for Dawkins or preferring Renaissance Art? But that might require too much imagination from Hollywood.

Comments 12 comments

Easy_as_ABC profile image

Easy_as_ABC 6 years ago

I would go so far as to say Dawkins IS a hack, and throw in Hawking too. As for Renaissance art, I could take it or leave it.

I'm going to have to look into this film La Milpa.

Good stuff.

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

I've heard a few comments that are similar about Dawkins and Hawking. Some Renaissance art is good, like the Lady of Shallot. As for La Milpa, it really was one of the most thought-provoking films for me. Very worthy of being watched and considered.

JohnBarret profile image

JohnBarret 6 years ago

Nice article

Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Richard Dawkins has zero credibility with moi. I liked him only in his takedown of Ted Haggard-that needed to be done, Rich was the man for the job-great work.

In more recent days Dirty Dawkins speaks "out of his ass" as often as he uses his brain. His recent statement that the Catholic Church is "a cancer" in our world shows that facts truly do not matter to Richard Dawkins.

Catholic Charities feed, cloth, and shelter more people who do not give a flip about evolution or atheism than Richard Dawkins has the capacity to believe.

Truly, when you are hungry-you do not care if there is a God or not, you are hungry, and you need to eat. Who's there for you? Christians and Jews-that's who.

Oh, I can almost See my beautiful Rahne coming. . . .she's not liking my comment here. . . .but it's only because my comment is completely true, and atheist charitable organizations are fewer, smaller, and carry significantly less impact on a global scale than do the Christian ones.

Films are powerful-I think that's why I don't watch so many of them. I think they throw my thinking out of kilter or something.

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

Mmmm, excellent points Todd. It does seem as though Christians and Jews do more to help the poor, the hungry and the needy.

However, I think Dawkins statement has some merit to it in terms of the sometimes dubious mentality that comes with religion and Catholicism in particular. The hierarchical structure for one, the infallibility of the Pope, and the continued mishandling of the priest scandal are some of the more obvious problems of course. But the bone I have to pick is the way religion, not just Catholicism, tries to exert control over the lives of the people. Ever hear the term "Catholic guilt"? How much easier is it to control people in this state?

Another obvious criticism is the way the religious mentality teaches you to just accept that your life is shoddy and expects you to wait for a miracle. This might be more Christian. What good is to be gained by this mentality? While I do see the good in some of the things produced by these two religious groups, I think I'd prefer freedom of thought to an institution trying to exert control over my mind. But I tend to be a bit skeptical after having encountered some intense institutionalized religion.

As for films, I suppose I just enjoy trying to think in different ways. The problem always seems to be finding which way is the best to think on a situation.

Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Sorry for leaving semi-crappy comments :-p

Here's my suggestion about what Dawkins COULD have said that would, imo, be valid. "The Catholic Church is to the world as a gambling vice or gossip is to an individual in society."

I'm positive that the Catholic Church does all sorts of terrible things-it's a human organization, and humans are flawed, however, I think the controlling, child abusing, etc, etc, guilt, etc. . . . are made up for when you consider the philanthropy of the organization.

It's like my bad habits. . . .I hope that my good traits overshadow the bad(wishful thinking, that one!) . . .but I'm not talking about in the eyes of "man" I'm talking about in reality.

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

The crappiest comment is the one left unsaid. Or the one that is just plain rude. I much appreciated the comment.

And I suppose I haven't thought in quite that way before. Yes, I can see how the Catholic Church is like any organization with its people problems. True statement, that. One I still need to ponder, perhaps. It has the good as well as the bad. Just like any org. My struggle is that just as we as individuals struggle with the good and bad within us, we are still held accountable for our actions to some degree. If I, in a moment of genuine anger, decide to act on some violent tendency toward someone who dislikes Tolkien , then the law comes and slaps me back into place. Well, we hope anyway. Yet what is the deepest gall for me pertaining the Church occurs when there is no accountability and sign of changing the very real injustices that it's organization perpetuates. So while I do recognize that some problems will exist regardless, there is an extent to which I don't feel comfortable participating or cooperating with an organization that so rarely admits its error.

NPR did a story talking about how many people were leaving the Catholic Church because they were disappointed with how the church continued to fail in its ministering of justice to the sexual offenders. Although a complicated issue, this raises the point: when does the injustice become too intolerable?

Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

Injustice is never tolerable-and isn't that the theme of both Judaism and Christianity? We humans commit "sin," and if you won't buy that one-then you will surely admit that every once in a while you fuck up, and someone has their feelings hurt, has a bad day, etc, etc, etc. . .because YOU did or said the wrong thing to them.

"Sin" snowballs exactly like that. If I cut someone off in traffic being a jerk, well, I'm wrong for that-I know it, and it is a "sin." Well, what if I pissed off the person that I cut off so badly(he was already having a horrific day) that he goes home, the wife left the god damned cap off the tooth paste-(straw that broke the camel's back), and he shoots her, and then himself.

That all goes on-but I've long forgotten cutting some fool off in traffic, I'm home drinking beer, and waxing longwindedly (THAT IS A WORD!) with you on hubpages.

We're flawed, we all fuck up, and "sin," and injustice isn't tolerable to God.

This is the reason why every culture has a messiah. Every human culture, and every human being KNOWS that we are a flawed being, and that we largely go unpunished for the many "little" things that we KNOW that we do wrong.

Hey, I'm disappointed with the whole of Christiandom. . .(THAT IS A WORD TOO!!!!), but let me tell you, I've been homeless, I've been left on street corners with nowhere to go, no money, no transportation-I had a phone, and I had people who were coming to get me. . .but I was so drugged out that I lost the damned phone. . . .passed out in a bar, and went to jail.

. . . .got out of jail, and walked to the Christian discipleship ministry/drug rehab(where I'd only just left a few weeks before after having lived there for a year and a half). . .and they took me back in.

Let me tell you, there were and are some FLAWED individuals who run that organization-I know that from experience, and it goes without saying, BECAUSE THEY ARE HUMAN BEINGS!!!!!!!!

Guess what, when you are hungry, and have no place to go. . . .it's not the Cambridge, or Oxford atheist with little regard for facts who takes you in. Oh no, it's the Christians who will take you in.

I've got Catholic friends who won't have a dollar, or a pocket to put it in-but those people will split that dollar with me if I need it.

I'm CERTAIN that there are great, charitable atheist people and organizations. . . .but they are few.

"Do you love me?"


"Feed my sheep."

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

This is the last paragraph I'm writing. I'm writing to convey the frustration with this response as it still conveys a real anger and bitterness at things. And I generally try to get rid of these things. So herein is my possibly faulty rationale still stemming from parts of myself that need to be changed. My apologies if it sucks and reveals me as some cynical, inhuman being. This is just how I see it. I really do appreciate your perspective. It's prob. the healthier, more just one. I just can't adopt it at this point. Must be the fault of that pesky humanity I dislike within myself.

First, that's awesome that you had a christian group like that. I think I will have to look up christian charities versus other nonreligious charities just to be sure, but it makes sense.

Second, I understand the whole sin/messiah/just human thing. Yes, I realize that I mess up. If I ever act as though I don't or whatever, my apologies. My mind tends to be like the Inquisition with my mistakes, so I make a hearty effort to avoid them. Fail miserably sometimes, but I try. I tend to be somewhat idealistic in this sense of striving for a nonexistant perfection. When I was a kid, I actually cried because I cheated at a Mario video game and some Penguin called me out on it. I've come a ways since then, but acceptance of my own error is hard. Trite and silly and a thousand other things, but that's this girl's deal. I strive for the ideal and so reality and I have issues at times.As for the messiah business, as it has become synonymous in our culture to say that having a messiah means its okay to continue to mess up and really hurt people, I've stepped away from this mentality as I don't want to ever be okay with the times that I knowingly or unknowingly hurt others. It happens, but I'm not okay with it.

Third. I know that people are messed up and as a consequence, this means their orgs will be messed up too. But when some of the flaws become institutionalized oppression, can I really just be silent? We might be flawed as humans, but don't we also have it in us to strive for something better? To actually work to correct some of the wrongs?

As for Christians versus Atheists...in my experience, the atheists and nonbelievers are the less judgmental ones. The ones more likely to accept you if you're having a bad day or just down. They also were more heavily involved in charitable kinds of organizations. They had a soup kitchen that they ran. They helped out immigrants. They volunteered. They displayed actions that I admire.

Many of the Christians I encountered were largely concerned with being athletic, successful people. Not all, but many. If you weren't like that, they would be nice to you but they never included you. Some were the beautiful exception. And again, you might say that this is just human nature, but I'm telling you it was the nonbelievers that I found more compassion from. They actually cared about more than just their own success and image.

I know my experience isn't the same as you. I've never been homeless. But I know when my dad died, we had to leave the church because my mom was no longer accepted. As a single person, she was now a threat to family values and women who were married. I know when my mom worked for a church making minimum wage as an accountant, they told her that her boss who did nothing had to be provided for as she was single (the woman was a two divorcee -- kind of hypocritical considering the catholic church's stance on marriage). And I know that two other churches we went to refused to do anything to create a supportive group for people who were suddenly single again through death and divorce. One church's response was that "this was a family org."

So I guess my experience with the church when my mom and I were down and out was one largely of unacceptance. Some acceptance, to be fair, but mostly not. I do recognize that the church does do a lot more worldwide in the way of charities, but seeing the harm it's done to friends and the way it's disincluded someone I love very much...how can I possibly just pass those things off as "just human"? How can I possibly not stop saying, "this isn't okay. We need to do something"? To say it is just human means to allow actions like those to continue.

Jesus said feed my sheep. And this is a good response. But he said it to Peter, the head of 12 men disciples. And for all his good treatment of women, he left behind a legacy in which it was almost religious duty for men to mistreat women and exclude them from circles when they should have been included so that they might have representation to stop the kinds of abuses that have happened to them throughout history on behalf of religion. But he didn't. And through his decisions, he continued the repressive exclusion of women as practiced by religion.

While error might be human and I can understand how problems happen, I don't think I'll ever be able to just let myself accept this when I see the wrong I do or the way the church continues to keep out the people it should help. Because just as the Bible talks of helping out the stranger and the homeless, it also talks of helping out widows and I can tell you that in my experience these are the kind of people that were left out in the cold.

Again, this is just my experience. Maybe if I ever am homeless -- which I recognize as quite possible --, I will find a Christian org. more likely to take me in than ones that are atheist. But instead, I have just this experience. And however faulty humanity may be, saying things like this are okay because we are human won't bring anyone closer to a mentality that embraces change.



Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

And I think I again must salute your piece. Mine seems woefully inhuman and I must remember when I go to the doctor to see that my heart still beats...pesky,erroneous thought mixed with my own inability to understand humans spotted again.

Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

No, yours is very human-hey, I've got HUGE grudges against Christianity for far less. Mine? I was so insecure and shy around women at 18-30 years of age that there are girls who could tell you stories. You? You've got a much better reason to be bitter.

Must have been a Catholic thing? Probably just with that particular church. My one devout Catholic friend, who is also a heroin addict(his uncle is an international gangster that owes me major money. . . ..that I'll never see, and could get shot for discussing). . . .well, this guy's Mother is divorced(OH MY!), but very devout. These are people who ALWAYS give the guy in downtown Dallas on the street corner a few bucks, while knowing all the while that it's going for mad dog 20/20!

Give-because you are asked to give, but not to a scam. If someone has some vice problem. . .they feel a real need, but don't let yourself be abused-very tricky waters that.

To err is human, to forgive, divine.

Elefanza profile image

Elefanza 6 years ago from Somewhere in My Brain Author

Thanks again for that. I think I'm pretty fortunate in the respect that while I've seen a lot of negative from the Catholic church (but I could say the same of the Protestant), I've also met some truly amazing, devoted people who were Catholic.

For me, I try to forgive though (and as I'm sure you understand) it's hard to forget. But I'm not perfect either and forgiveness still seems best. Thanks again for your comment. It helped. :)

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