The Art of Empathetic Cinema

H.R. Starzec
Oct 20, 2020 · 11 min read

Empathy: In the increasingly polarized and hostile world we seem to live in, it’s easy to believe that it’s a lost art. We are so used to reducing others into tools and ideas, or even enemies, rather than seeing them as the human beings that they are. We write people off as misguided or troubled without thinking about where these troubles came from, or how they strayed away from their path. Or, perhaps even worse, we ignore issues and injustices simply because we are not personally affected by them.

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“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Eliza Hittman, 2020

Art has the power to heal. Even if some may scoff at such an assertion (though I wouldn’t like to believe that there are people who feel that they’ve never been changed or affected by a piece of art), it’s a mistake to underestimate this power and the effect it can have on the people who will listen. Art can show people things that cannot be conveyed in any other way. If anything can ease the lack of empathy felt in the world right now, it’s art, whether that be poetry or prose, music or illustrations. Or, of course, film.

Cinema as a whole can be seen as a vehicle for empathy — in general, the goal of a film is to make the audience feel as if they have lived the experiences of the character onscreen, and can identify with their struggles. Understanding is the vital foundation to empathy and connection, and this is not a concept alien to cinema. However, some films are teeming with compassion to such a degree that they redefine what empathy in cinema can be. Such films contain empathy in layers — not only does the audience empathize with the characters, but empathy seems to ooze from the direction and writing of the film. Characters show compassion toward one another, conveyed through tender moments of human connection. There’s a feeling of sensitivity and understanding at every level, and the filmmaker trusts that the audience is capable of extracting these feelings from film.

There’s a universality to cinematic tactics that transcend literal situation. It is not necessary to relate to the particular conflicts that a character is facing, as long as the film succeeds in conveying the broader emotions and reactions associated with that situation. This can be achieved in several ways, and it’s not so much scientific as it is deeply visceral. A film such as 2018’s “Us and Them” demonstrates this somewhat obviously, making it a relatively easy example to point to. However, there’s a blurred line between truly empathetic filmmaking and pure emotional manipulation, so nothing is set in stone or inarguable (after all, how much can be called “objective” in film and art in general?). “Us and Them,” directed by René Liu, follows the tumultuous uncertain relationship between two struggling lower-class young adults who meet on a train. There are several barriers to being able to relate to this story, as not everyone has experienced poverty, not everyone has a damaged relationship with a parent, not everyone has been in the sort of dramatic romantic relationship that the film centers on, not everyone understands the social nuances of the setting, and so on. It may be obvious to point out that one does not have to have lived the situations portrayed onscreen in order to find something to relate to, nor in order to feel compassion toward the characters.

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“Us and Them,” René Liu, 2018

Seeing these situations relayed through art is an important component to gaining a greater understanding of these situations. “Us and Them” follows a decaying romance, and it is able to deliver the emotional impact of that decay by first showing that romance in an idealistic way, almost to the point of it feeling like a fantasy. Everything from the bold, present music to the wondrous winter landscape to the bouncy dialogue conveys this sense of impossible perfection — what things feel like before the cracks become apparent and the color is washed away. The stark contrast between this perfect past and the dreary, washed out present causes the audience to feel as if something were personally taken away from them. They feel the loss of happiness just as the characters do, even if it took cinematic technique to so strongly transmit this sentiment.

Tender, genuine moments between characters can be very effective when it comes to instilling empathy, as these moments demonstrate that the characters have empathy toward each other. Often these moments can be unexpected — the audience becomes so engulfed by the explicit drama of the situation being shown onscreen that a moment of true connection can be a shocking, affecting event. It’s impossible to describe the nuances of the relationships of “Us and Them,” that requires actually watching it, but an example of this can nevertheless be described in the context of the film. There’s a point near the end of the film where everything in its power has been done to produce a battered, broken audience, which happens to be the best time to deliver a startling emotional blow. While the film is primarily about the romantic relationship between this couple, lurking in the relative background is a significant source of compassion that is made stronger by its juxtaposition with the decaying romance. A secondary plot follows the male protagonist’s father as over time he is effectively abandoned by his son, and slowly loses the friends and family that once surrounded him.

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“Us and Them,” René Liu, 2018

In a way, the film employs a method that mirrors the aforementioned contrast between the past and present, and it is aware of this comparison. Among the ruins of lost relationships, there is a moment of hope and positivity that also conveys a sense of lifelong hurt and desperation. The father character as he grows old doesn’t care about the fact that the film’s central couple didn’t end up together, and he doesn’t care about the fact that he has become estranged from his son. He still extends a compassion gesture toward his son’s ex-girlfriend, writing to her: “Take care of yourself. Come home anytime when you’re tired.” Through all of the pain and disappointment, this genuine gesture not only shows that he is empathetic of her troubles, but also strengthens the empathy that the audience feels toward him, knowing all that he has gone through over the course of the film.

A film that applies similar tactics, perhaps to a greater degree and to greater effect, is “Ilo Ilo” by Anthony Chen. The film is set against the backdrop of the Asian financial crisis in Singapore. While the implicit assumption is that there is no time and no space for meaningful connection among rampant economic conflict, the film delivers unexpectedly delicate moments that disprove that assumption. It’s easy to get caught up in an “every man for himself” mentality when everyone is being negatively affected, and it’s easy to forget that, in such situations, people face personal conflicts that may be mentally reduced and believed to be insignificant when compared to the greater issues. This is easily seen in our modern world at any given time, when the great conflicts take precedent in people’s minds.

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“Ilo Ilo,” Anthony Chen, 2018

“Ilo Ilo” is brimming with small, meaningful moments that convey a sense of understanding among characters. Their shared situation at times appears to distance them as they all put on their best attempts at hardened facades in order to combat the heavy negativity of the situation, but these facades are not nearly perfect. Anger, sadness, and desperation still seep through the cracks, leading to honesty that seems to come out of nowhere. The facades that characters put up are not inhibitors to empathy. Even if their internal conflicts remain vague, small details allow for a sense of general understanding and relatability.

When watching “Ilo Ilo,” I was surprised by the apparent sense of nostalgia the film gave me. I was not alive during the time period that the film takes place, nor have I ever lived in the country that it takes place in. It was nostalgia for something I have never actually experienced, demonstrating the feeling of longing delivered to me by the universal elements that bubble up to the surface of the film, surpassing the barriers ostensibly presented by the differences in situation.

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“Ilo Ilo,” Anthony Chen, 2018

Whether or not the struggles of the characters are directly relatable, the conflicts they face and the way they face their struggles is universal. The way they process and express their emotions is greater than their circumstances — it’s all a part of being human. When a film presents this expressly human element to the forefront and does so in a nuanced and honest way, it’s easy to connect with the characters and feel for them. It’s easy to understand them and where they are coming from. “Ilo Ilo” does this particularly notably when it follows a character acting in what seems to be an irrational way, and then those cracks through the facade begin to form, honesty begins to shine through, and, suddenly, understanding fills the air. Everyone is in pain and this pain can drive them to ignore what’s inside, but concealing it completely is nearly impossible. Subtleties in dialogue and performances can play a large role in this.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is a film that demonstrates the power of a performance when it comes to revealing just enough to instill empathy, but maintaining a character that keeps so much bottled up and stored away, trying to keep her guard up despite her troubles. The film’s two main characters are relentlessly understanding of each other, and they face a world that seems largely empathetic of their struggles. It’s as if the filmmaker is leading the characters through a chaotic world, reaching through the camera with an invisible hand.

The film follows a teenager, named Autumn, who is pregnant and seeking to terminate her pregnancy. Ironically, when she expresses this desire to a nurse, that nurse attempts to exploit Autumn’s sympathy through anti-abortion videos and pamphlets in order to discourage her from pursuing the procedure. Autumn remains determined, attempting to give herself a miscarriage through supplements and beating her own stomach. It’s when she confesses her pregnancy to her cousin and coworker Skylar that empathy enters the scene.

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“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Eliza Hittman, 2020

Not many words are spoken between Skylar and Autumn, as the latter shows herself to be quiet and keep mostly to herself. However, a lot is said through the glances between the two characters. They convey worry, pain, confusion, and understanding through these glances, establishing that words may not be all that helpful when it comes to revealing what’s hidden deep inside these characters. The film remains ambiguous when it comes to the specifics of the pain that Autumn has experienced, but it’s through what’s left unsaid that it all becomes clear. And in a way this ambiguity helps when it comes to being empathetic of her situation — it allows people to project their own experiences onto the film, as the emotions expressed are familiar even if the situation is vague.

The camera itself feels empathetic and intimate in the film, revealing the nuances of characters’ expressions through closeups. Through a seemingly stoic countenance, the smallest things are revealed through the camera and picked up by the viewer, whether subconsciously or not. A perpetual glint in Autumn’s eye seems to serve as a foggy window to her soul, revealing some small amount of what she’s keeping bottled up inside her.

Much like with “Ilo Ilo,” it’s the tender moments that come from unexpected places that tend to feel most empathetic. After Autumn snaps at her, Skylar still takes the time to gently apply makeup to Autumn’s face, neither of them saying a word except for gently expressed instructions. The camera floats from Autumn to her reflection and then back again, soaking in the surprising lack of tension of the moment. It’s a gesture that says “I understand, let’s now move forward,” stopping any vitriol in its tracks. Another such moment occurs when Skylar is being taken advantage of by a young man, a situation all too familiar to Autumn, and all too familiar to the audience. As Autumn witnesses the scene of Skylar being kissed by the man, Skylar’s face full of concern rather than enjoyment, she grabs Skylar’s hand and then links their pinkies together, a poignant and caring gesture that contrasts with the soft horror of the situation.

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“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Eliza Hittman, 2020

It’s important for a film like “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” to instill empathy, as it portrays a situation that often has the empathy removed from it in its popular depictions. The film allows the audience to understand the nuances of these circumstances, and reminds them of the human at the center. It’s vital that a diverse variety of situations be represented onscreen, as film has the power to induce understanding. It gives the ignored a voice. Empathy and compassion tend to have rippling effects. When characters in a film are compassionate toward each other, when the filmmaker behind a camera portrays their subjects in an empathetic light, the viewer is able to more easily understand the struggles and issues being shown. And as this empathy shows itself through this viewer’s words and conduct, it can only spread further. While our world is not nearly perfect, art is able to make it more compassionate as a whole. Despite the fact that we are exposed to decidedly heartless actions on a daily basis in our lives and through current events, it’s important that we persevere and remain understanding. It’s really the only way to survive in this world. After all, a life that’s lived only for oneself doesn’t really seem like a life worth living. There’s a whole diverse world out there, and art allows us to transcend our own situations and see what else is out there. It allows us to step into the shoes of others and feel some amount of the weight of their troubles. It allows us to listen, and it allows us to speak. Art has that power. Cinema has that power. Why allow that power to remain untapped?

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“Us and Them,” René Liu, 2018

H.R. Starzec

Written by

Opinions about movies, television, and whatever else might come to my mind.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

H.R. Starzec

Written by

Opinions about movies, television, and whatever else might come to my mind.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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