Life through the Lens: Films Have Never Just Been about Entertainment-They Have Also Been a Powerful Force for Social Change. So What a Pity That the Gulf between Cinema and Politics Has Never Been Greater

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Does political cinema mirror life? How much impact can a movie have on its audience? To what extent is it able to influence the way we think about politics? The relationship between cinema and politics, often troubled, has recently become far too distant.

Last month, an issue of the International Herald Tribune featured two unrelated articles about the French riots. One argued that films have long been warning that French-born Arab and black youths feel alienated and that the urban environments in which they live are ripe for explosion. The "banlieue" genre, dating back to the mid-1990s (and including films such as La Haine), has been more effective in highlighting the problem than the conventional media. Yet politicians have failed to take notice--as was shown by the other article, which reported a French parliamentary debate on strengthening anti-terror laws through increased investment in high-tech surveillance. The gulf between politics and cinema could hardly be greater. What a tragedy that politicians seem to find it all but impossible to take note of life as reflected in art.

I've always believed that cinema can be a powerful force in creating (or reflecting) an appetite for change. It has tremendous power to engage and inspire--far more than television, which has a different relationship with its viewer.

Take the role of the Hollywood movies of the late 1950s in getting white Americans to understand the unsustainability of their racial attitudes. More than any other medium, it was cinema that established the environment which led to Kennedy's election and the civil rights legislation brought in by his successor. Now George Clooney's wonderful Good Night, and Good Luck offers a media-obsessed generation the opportunity to reflect on exactly why television and good journalism remain important.

In Britain, back in the 1940s, movies were actively used by the government as a vehicle for political propaganda. I have recently been making a series of programmes for BBC Radio 4 about the changing political role of British cinema. I focus on three films from the mid-1940s to the early 1990s.

The first is the wartime documentary A Diary for Timothy, made by Humphrey Jennings, a brilliant film-maker who inspired a generation of cinema audiences with his uplifting images of wartime life. Jennings's films, which were made for the Central Office of Information, were shown to a mass audience as B-movies attached to the main feature, at a time when everyone went to the cinema. A Diary for Timothy takes the form of a diary to a baby born six months before the end of the war. It acted as a kind of "cinematic manifesto" for the type of society people yearned for after six years of crisis, in effect heralding the welfare state. Written by E M Forster and narrated by Michael Redgrave, the film has been described as "the script of the new governing class". Jennings, a pre-war Oxbridge graduate, was part of a generation that, as a result of its wartime experience, came to admire the British working class, and that respect shines through in his work.

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Although propagandist in nature, A Diary for Timothy struck a chord with a nation trying to pull together in building a better society. Many scenes are incredibly powerful--such as the one in which Timothy, gently blowing bubbles in his cot, is asked: "Will you have to suffer money and greed ousting decency, or will you make the world a different place, you and all the other babies?"

Jennings's dream had clearly begun to sour by the late 1950s, when the Boulting Brothers made their comedy I'm All Right Jack, starring Peter Sellers as the bolshie shop steward Fred Kite. …