This is an article I wrote for Idea magazine back in 1997, but I didn't publish it on Culturewatch as it doesn't really belong there. Having stumbled across it on my hard drive this afternoon, it seems a waste not to republish it here.
Political apathy seems to be one of the main features of today’s political landscape. Politicians and commentators are repeatedly bemoaning it. Around a fifth of British people have no interest in politics whatsoever, according to a survey published in March. Even students don’t get worked up like they used to. Nearly three quarters of the population say that they trust politicians 'not very much' or 'not at all'. It seems that this widespread mistrust of the whole political process has made ‘politics’ a dirty word.
Despite this, people do care about issues that are undoubtedly political. The last few years have seen a huge rise in concern over environmental issues, for example. No longer is environmentalism seen as the domain of cranks, but rather as something that all right-thinking people should be building into their lives. Twenty years ago, Prince Charles was seen by many to be firmly in the former category when he introduced organic farming at Highgrove. Now, on the environmental front, if not on others, he appears to have been something of a visionary who was ahead of the game.
Issues of global poverty and trade justice have also become increasingly prominent. The Jubilee and Make Poverty History campaigns had an enormous impact, catching the imagination of millions and achieving some real change, even if far from what was hoped for. Two aspects of this campaign are particularly interesting. One is the fact that evangelical Christians got on board so wholeheartedly. This was far from inevitable. A couple of decades earlier, this kind of activism was something that many evangelicals would have steered clear of.
Not that long ago, there was a widespread suspicion of social action, especially of campaigns led by people who were not Christians. The feeling was that Christians who had embraced social issues in the nineteenth century had ended up abandoning their convictions in the power of the gospel. There is some truth in this. However, Christian social involvement had been pioneered by committed evangelicals – people like William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury. In recent years Christians have been reclaiming this aspect of their heritage, and are increasingly rolling their sleeves up and getting stuck into issues which affect the lives of others.
The second notable aspect of Make Poverty History was its place within the media. It helped having Richard Curtis as a driving force, of course. He wrote a special edition of The Vicar of Dibley for broadcast on New Year’s Day, 2005, to launch the campaign. Subverting the ending of a hugely popular comedy programme to focus on the plight of the poor around the world was a masterstroke. It drove home the message to several million viewers. Then, just before the famous G8 Summit at Gleneagles, the BBC (and HBO in the USA) screened Curtis’s powerful drama The Girl in the Café, about a young woman who lambastes the leaders at a G8 Summit over their lack of concern for the world’s poor.
Politics on film
We may be deeply distrustful of politicians’ carefully worded promises, but it seems we are very open to hearing about political issues through the arts. The arts have always been used in political ways, especially at times of crisis. Think of the Dada movement’s anti-war convictions, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964) or most folk music. In recent years there has been a very significant number of films with strongly political aspects. For example, look at the wide variety of powerful films that have focused on political and social issues in Africa over the last few years. To name a few: In My Country (John Boorman, 2004) about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the Oscar-winning Tsotsi (2005, Gavin Hood), set in a South African township; Hotel Rwanda (Terry George, 2004) and Shooting Dogs (Michael Caton-Jones, 2005) on the Rwandan genocide; Mooladé (Ousmane Sembène, 2004) about female genital circumcision in Senegal; and The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005) about interference from multinational corporations and western governments.
More recently, Catch a Fire (Philip Noyce, 2006) asks what turns someone into an ANC activist, and The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006) examines the violent charisma of Idi Amin. Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006) and Andrew Niccol’s powerful Lord of War (2005) alert us to the secret trading of diamonds and weapons that fuel some of the brutal conflicts on that continent.
Films like these, even when they are set in a particular historical context, bring home to people the tensions, difficulties and compromises that the world’s poorest continent must grapple with right now. The present is the child of the past, and by telling powerful stories, films get under our skin and engage us at other levels besides the intellectual. The aesthetic qualities of a film somehow make us more open to being stirred emotionally.
We know in theory that multinational pharmaceutical companies are motivated by profit rather than helping the poor, but The Constant Gardener’s fictional story makes us actually feel the injustice. And once we are engaged emotionally by a story we are motivated to reflect on the ethics of the real-world situation – and even to act.
Fact or fiction
Even more interesting than the rise in politically motivated films is the move of documentaries into the mainstream. This started with Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), controversial films which showed that there was more of an appetite for documentaries than anyone imagined. Last year An Inconvenient Truth, little more than a film of Al Gore’s lecture on global warming, was a big hit, playing a significant part in ramming home to viewers the seriousness of the situation we face. George Clooney, increasingly concerned to make politically themed films such as Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), has recently been involved in the making of Sand and Sorrow, a documentary about the crisis in Darfur. In cinemas this summer, Black Gold puts the global coffee trade under the microscope, urging further advancements in fair trade, while John Pilger’s The War on Democracy looks at the relationship between the US and various South American countries. We also have another documentary on the way from Moore; his examination of the commercialised health care system, Sicko, premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
It’s clear that these films inform, challenge and move us. We might even be stirred to action. One man was so moved by The Girl in the Café that he posted his DVD to someone else and started it on a journey around the world. Anyone can have it sent to them on condition that they write about it afterwards. It’s a small step, but means a few more people are challenged about the need for governments to act to relieve poverty.
Black Gold shows viewers the importance of buying Fairtrade goods. Rising consumer pressure in this area is already bringing about changes: Sainsbury and Waitrose now sell exclusively Fairtrade bananas. Lord of War concludes by informing us that the world’s biggest arms dealers are the permanent members of the UN Security Council. It doesn’t explicitly ask us to do something, but it makes us question our nation’s foreign policy.
What is particularly striking about these politically charged films is that the values of many of them are profoundly Christian: compassion for the disadvantaged and dispossessed, standing against injustice and inequality, calling for freedom, urging care for our world, and so on. They are a far cry from the opinion that the media is only corrupting society.
It’s not just film, of course. David Hare’s play The Vertical Hour is a response to 9/11; Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn has been making huge installations reflecting on the Iraq conflict, while Gilbert and George’s recent exhibition at Tate Modern featured six works on the 7 July bombings. And Banksy’s famous graffiti is almost all political.
Along with our culture, the Church is regaining its social conscience. To be effective salt and light we must be a prophetic voice calling attention to issues that need be addressed, and we must be demonstrating the love of Christ in action. We should be at the forefront of social and political concern, not struggling to keep up.
We need to engage with the media, helping people reflect on socially aware work and showing that right values are those which are consistent with God’s character. This helps people to begin connecting justice with righteousness, and shows that the Gospel is relevant to all of life. This is an important part of the work of Damaris both in schools and through Culturewatch.org, which is aimed at those outside the church. LICC, zero28, Greenbelt, Third Way and many other Christian groups help believers reflect on the interface between the arts, society and faith.
As well as responding to the arts and media, we need gifted Christians who can produce brilliant work which is good enough to speak for Christ in a secular context – artists like Paul Hobbs in the UK whose works are both excellent and powerful.
What could be the results of a creative conversation between church and world in which we both speak and respond, showing the beauty of Christ, affirming God’s values and inviting our broken world to act in repentance and find redemption?