Can movies really make a difference?

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The annual documentary festival Movies That Matter is taking place this week in The Hague. There are more than 70 films about situations around the world where human rights are under fire. But do these films really make a difference? 

Festival director Taco Ruighaver is – naturally enough – convinced that they do. 

“If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be here. There are plenty of examples that have resulted in international action or questions in parliament. Often reports from social organisations have revealed what is happening long before but, as soon as a film about it is released, the whole world takes notice. That's the power of cinema.”

So, do the people featured in these documentaries profit from discussions in the West? Yes, says Ruighaver. As an example he cites Cidade de Deus, the famous film about the favelas in Brazil. Security in the favelas was improved as a result of the film and inhabitants felt safer, according to Ruighaven. “However,” he admits, “I wouldn't like to boast about any direct effect on anyone filmed in Africa or Bangladesh or Peru.”

Documentaries are usually made for western viewers. That's deliberate, says Dutch filmmaker Ilse van Velzen. Together with her sister Femke, she made documentaries in Congo about the widespread nature and impunity of rape in that country.

“We make films for a western audience too. If you want to change something you have to show it in the West.”

However, the Van Velzen sisters also attracted another audience. While they were filming, they were approached by Congolese women who asked to use the material for teaching purposes.

“They wanted to show their village the consequences of violence, something they had previously only done with a few drawings. That's all well and good, but there's no infrastructure for showing films, no electricity in many places and certainly no cinemas.”

So Ilse and Femke came up with the Mobile Cinema Project: a jeep with a projection screen that drives all over Congo showing the documentary Fighting the Silence. Around 2,500 people come to each screening and an estimated one million Congolese have seen the film so far.

While many applauded the effort, there was also criticism. Can you preserve your credibility as a filmmaker with an activist approach? Documentary maker Michael Moore, who took a clear stance in films like Sicko (about the US health system) and Bowling for Columbine (about the right to bear arms), says he has been disappointed in the lack of influence his work has had.

Isle van Velzen does believe in the impact of documentaries.

“With all those viewers there will always be a couple of people who will start thinking differently about the violence [in Congo]. I've no idea how many, but I'm quite sure it exerts an influence.”

The sisters believe that taking the film back to the people and using it for educational purposes gives it a value for the Congolese themselves. “If you want to take a film back to a country you have to make sure it is suitable.”

An example of how not to do it, according to Van Velzen, is the recent Facebook hype Kony2012.

“The film about the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony was very much made for people in western countries with internet. The Ugandans were not happy with it. We would never have a white expat telling how things should be done in a country [as in Kony2012 - ed.]. I don't think that's acceptable.”

Taco Ruighaver regards this criticism of the internet hit as a bit simplistic. “The effect becomes more nuanced through the social debate that it generates.”

Another documentary about Joseph Kony, Peace vs Justice, is being screened at the festival, in which Ugandans say they do not need any interference from international lawyers, they want to deal with Kony in their own way.

“I would really like to have shown this film alongside Kony2012. But, of course, everyone has seen that already. And it unquestionably did have an impact.”