“Cinema with a Conscience”: Five Movies that Changed My Life

The choices you make when you go to a movie, stream a film on your computer or watch something on TV can change you. It’s up to you to decide if it will be for the better, or worse.

A still from ‘Human’ by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

We’ve all experienced the positive power of cinema. It is that moment, at the end of a movie, right before the lights come back on and as the credits roll by, when we feel we can change the world. We feel invigorated, wish to do better, want to be better and walk out of the theater with a new spring in our step. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, that energy, the magic of the movies, stays with us in our daily lives and continues to inspire a change that can become momentous.

But we’ve also read the headlines and seen the impact that a film filled with negative messages can have. Perhaps too busy watching movies filled with human stories, I’d resisted viewing that now infamous (due to the tragic actions of one gunman in Aurora in 2012) installment of the Batman franchise — until I went to a filmmaker’s house and his nephews begged him to play it on the giant screen of his editing room. Just as I’d imagined, when I finally watched The Dark Knight, I felt a part of me disintegrate through the film’s physical and emotional violence. Perhaps, it was as simple as admitting I did not want to see certain things I could anyway watch on the news. I felt the thin line that separates them dangerously crossed after watching that film. And the little boys, one seven and one ten years old, who had begged their uncle to watch it, were both in shock. The younger one, thankfully unaware of his inner turmoil, left to play soccer with his friends and soon forgot the anxiety of those images. The elder one threw a temper tantrum, hid behind his grandmother’s couch face down on the floor and silently pounded his fists on the floor.

It was in that moment it all became clear to me, how what we watch changes us. And it is no accident the world is so screwed up these days, because of the horror, violence and inhumanity we witness every day in what we still call “entertainment”. Actually, even the choices we make to be our politicians these days are tinted with what we’ve watched on TV — eh hum, ‘The Apprentice’ — or on the big screen.

To counteract those hard-to-avoid bad vibes, here are five films that have soothed my soul, when I’ve needed that most. It’s my personal playlist for bettering myself and finding hope. What is yours?

‘Loving’ by Jeff Nichols

While of course ‘Moonlight’ walked away with the Best Picture Oscar this year, a courageous counteract to last year’s “OscarSoWhite” hashtag, my favorite among the nominations was a film that did the gutsiest thing ever done in movies: show us coexistence and help us understand and therefore celebrate our shared differences. I felt ‘Moonlight’ was great but ‘Loving’ was groundbreaking, because while the former still showed us only one shade of humanity, albeit a different one from the usual, the latter showed us the miracle of interweaving two or more. Jeff Nichols is a filmmaker I respect deeply because he adds an extra layer of compassion to every film he makes, even a sci-fi thriller like his 2016 ‘Midnight Special’. In fact, when I interviewed him for that film in Berlin last year, he confessed that he chooses his work always thinking of his role as a father. ‘Loving’ is based on the real-life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, the mixed race couple and plaintiffs in a landmark 1967 civil rights case that brought about the abolition of laws prohibiting interracial marriage in the US. It is a film that shows us real love and what we are capable of doing if we cast our prejudices aside. ‘Loving’ changed my life because it made me dream of a world where we all accept each other and love one another because of who we are, not what we look like or where we come from. And you know what they say, “If you can dream it…”

‘Caramel’ by Nadine Labaki

I credit Nadine Labaki’s 2007 film ‘Caramel’ with kickstarting my love of cinema from the Arab world. But to call Labaki’s soulful, sexy oeuvre simply “Arab cinema” would be a gross understatement. ‘Caramel’ is an ensemble piece, a film showcasing the talent and personalities of real women who interact in and around a beauty salon in Beirut. These characters are so perfectly drawn up, so beautifully played by the actresses who inhabit them, which includes Labaki as shop owner Layale, that I’ve longed, each and every time I watch the film, to call them my friends. ‘Caramel’ has been to me the cinematic equivalent of a diplomatic mission, with Labaki being the ambassador for women of the Middle East. She showcases their strength without apology and when people dare to bring up stereotypes about Arab women, I point them to ‘Caramel’ to show them the way. The real way. That’s how ‘Caramel’ changed my life, it allowed me to have a deeper conversation with my Arab counterparts, and find among us more common ground than differences.

‘Taxi’ by Jafar Panahi

OK, once you’ve watched Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning ‘The Salesman’ please follow me on a journey through Tehran that will show you the true essence of Iran. Filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested in 2010, placed under house arrest and forbidden from making movies by the Iranian government for the next 20 years. Yet, year after year ever since, he’s been reinventing cinema and in the process, has become the most precious spokesperson for Iran’s humanity. When I say humanity, I mean the characters that inhabit his stories, whether real or make-believe, who show us the undeniable similarities between us, instead of the oceans that we believe separate us. I’m definitely not talking political Iran, and their idiotic bureaucracy, which instead he manages to tear apart without ever saying anything against it. ‘Taxi’ has changed my life because it makes me want to work for a world when artists will be allowed to say what they want, without paying such a heavy price for the truth.

‘I Am Not Your Negro’ by Raoul Peck

When I wrote that if I didn’t watch another film for this entire 2017 I would satisfied, after viewing ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ — I wasn’t kidding. Raoul Peck’s Oscar-nominated homage to writer James Baldwin is that good, and probably because there isn’t a word Baldwin has uttered or written that isn’t the key to solving every problem in the world today. Among his wisdoms are quotes like “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually” and “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” I mean, you could bring up an entire country of those two quotes alone, and eliminate war, racism and drugs in the process. But Peck’s genius in making a film about this great intellect of 20th century America is that instead of a proper documentary, he’s created a cinematic portrait, and had superstar Samuel L. Jackson narrate it. The film has changed my life because I now find a Baldwin quote to lift me up from just about any personal failure or doubt.

‘Human’ by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

When I received a link for Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s ‘Human’ two years ago, right before its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, at first I’ll admit I was frightened by the film’s length — 188 minutes. “How will I ever get through a documentary that is three hours long?” I thought. Yet when I sat down to watch the film, on my computer which in retrospect wasn’t ideal, I could not tear my eyes away. Scene after scene, photographer and photojournalist Arthus-Bertrand showed me the heroic within our simple humanity, and the human qualities existing within the heroes. He also put that in the context of our daily lives, our environment and aided by aerial views and sweeping shots of landscapes, narrowed in on close-ups of human beings from all around our globe. The result is a grand masterpiece that can make us proud of belonging to the human race, and ‘Human’ changed my life because I now force myself to recognize the multiple layers of each person I come in contact with, instead of thinking in terms of immediate like/dislike.

Image of ‘Human’ used with permission.