21st August 2017.(Short video at the end)
For a long time, information was distributed strictly from the top (political elites) to the bottom (audience/citizens) and political control was maintained that way. With technological advancements, this power has shifted. The Media has now positioned itself as an intermediary that connects the political elites to the audience. In 2012, the movie Argo brought the 1979 Iranian invasion of the United States embassy to life on screen. Similar movies like Lincoln, which depicted the civil war and the struggle to abolish slavery, have been praised for the political messages that they contained. However, this was not a new feat. Since the invention of motion picture camera, films have evolved from merely showing events in motion to arousing emotions and interests in historical or real-time events. A film is said to be political in content when it portrays real-time or historical events with the intent of communicating a message to the audience. Films are sometimes mistaken to be accurate portrayals of real life events, places or people, however, the connection between politics and film is not one that is very clear at first glance. Various theories have been developed to describe communication processes and assess the impact of media on the audience especially in Politics. Focusing on film as a media, the central question of this paper is: can film be used as a political tool? To answer this, this paper is divided into two parts. The first part gives a brief literature review on the SMCR model and media impact theories such as agenda setting, critical theory and priming, to describe what happens when a film is watched and how messages can be communicated through film. For a case study, the second part of this paper focuses on and analyze the Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin; a film that was released during the Nazi Germany era to see if political messages can be communicated through film.
Communication is at the center of all human interactions. It is a vital survival tool that theories and models have been developed to give a better understanding of the communication process. To understand the impact of film, it is imperative to understand how messages are communicated through film. In 1949, Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver created the first model of communication. “The original model was designed to mirror the functioning of radio and telephone technologies. Their initial model consisted of three primary parts: sender, channel, and receiver” (Velentzas & Broni, 2014). The sender was the person initiating the radio or telephone call, the channel was the telephone and the receiver was the person at the other end of the line. Another Model that has been developed is the SMCR model by David Berlo. “David K. Berlo, a communications theorist and consultant points out the importance of the psychological view in his communication model. The four parts of Berlo’s SMCR model are source, message, channel, and receive” (Oyero, 2012). In this model, Berlo separated the source from the message. Filmmaking can be analyzed through the SMCR model.
In the early years of film making, studios dominated the game. After the motion picture camera was invented by Thomas Edison, the studio system was born. Studios like Paramount pictures and Disney used vertical integration to have a dominant control over filmmaking. Vertical integration is where one studio had control of its “production (using actors, sets, and film), distribution (passing motion picture prints from producer to exhibitor, and from exhibitor to exhibitor), and exhibition (showing motion picture prints to the final consumer)” (Hanssen, 2009). This means that these studios controlled every aspect of filmmaking and consequently, determined the content of films that were produced. The rise in independent producers and technological advancements, has shifted the total control that studios had in the early years and these independent producers determine the messages that their films convey. Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen are examples of independent film producers that have used their craft to portray their own ideologies e.g. the classic American Tail is a Spielberg film that portrays immigration in a unique way. The studios and independent producers assert “the critical theory of media impact which assumes that powerful media owners can assert their own ideological interest in their media content” (Straubhaar, LaRose, & Davenport, 2014). This theory suggests that the filmmakers choose the message that they want to convey to the audience themselves.
Since the Great Train Robbery, films have been used to tell stories of either real or fictional events. Basically, whatever the audience understands from the stories that are told, is the message. The Birth of a Nation was the first movie with a political content. It depicted the American civil war and created controversy through its portrayal of the ku klux klan members. The message was, members of the KKK are heroes. Modern movies like 12 years a slave, The Help, and Straight ‘outta’ Compton send messages about historical events or periods through the eyes of certain individuals. Through this level, film carries out agenda setting. “Agenda setting refers to the idea that there is a strong correlation between the emphasis that mass media place on certain issues and the importance attributed to these issues by mass audience” (Scheufele & Tewskbury, 2006). This means that whatever the media, and in this case, film considers to be important, will most likely been deemed important by the audience as well. Often, the emphasis is created by important and political events example, films that were made about the second world war while it was happening made such a huge impact on people’s minds such that war films are still a lasting genre today.
The Channel and The Receiver
The channel here would be Film. Film peaked in the 1930’s — 1940’s. it was a period that marked the selling and exportation of American culture to the world. “Despite the great depression, people tried hard to find a couple of dimes for the movies and collectively bought about 70 million tickets a week” (Straubhaar, LaRose, & Davenport, 2014). As the receivers, the audience decodes messages that are sent through film, hence, films are used as a channel to prime the audience to think in a certain way. George Lucas’s Star Wars movies can quickly be categorized as entertainment at first glance, however, there are various theories that the empire is a parallel to the white supremacists.
Case Study of Film as a Political Force: The Great Dictator by Chaplin
The Great Dictator is a classic movie released in 1940, at the peak of Adolph Hitler’s campaign to create an empire with the idea of a supreme Aryan race. It used satirical references to discredit the Nazi Movement and create awareness of injustice and inequality. Charlie Chaplin was dubbed the King of silent movies for his ability to keep his audience captivated through comedy and body movement. “He is known as one of cinema’s most important and influential actors, rising to fame in the silent film era of the early and mid-1900s” (UHN, 2014). In the early years of film when studios would exploit actors that were known to attract large viewing numbers, Charlie Chaplin was one of the actors that was exploited under the star system. His use of body movements with the infusion of comedy into his story telling, made him a prominent actor at the time. In a way, this gave him a little bit of public opinion leadership. “In 1917, Chaplin decided to become an independent producer in a desire for more freedom and greater leisure in making his movies. To that end, he busied himself with the construction of his own studio” (charlieChaplin.com, n.d). As an independent producer, he could create an anti-Nazi film in a period where politics played by big studios who wouldn’t have wanted to lose their international audience, would have prevented him from doing so.
The Great Dictator sees Charlie Chaplin, reprising his role as a comedic character by playing the two central figures in the story: the barber and the dictator, Hynkel. The Film is set during the Nazi Germany era in a fictional country called Tomania and follows the barber who has a shop in the ghetto where Nazi soldiers terrorized the predominantly Jewish neighborhood. The Barber tries to resist but is ultimately captured and sent to a concentration camp together with a former Nazi soldier. Charlie Chaplin’s mastery of body communication is seen here, especially in scenes where he mocks the Hitler salute by sometimes over exaggerating it or giving a lackluster salute. The scene where Hynkel (Hitler) asks to be left alone with the globe is one of the significant scenes in the movie because, “the scene sums up the problem with Hitler, Nazism, and maybe even fascism for his audience. Hynkel isn’t particularly evil with his globe. He isn’t violent or horrible. He’s ridiculous” (Johnson, 2010). Charlie Chaplin’s portrayal of Hitler also demystified the enigma that surrounded him. Portraying him as clumsy, prone to falling over and making silly mistakes, made it easy for the audience to lose any notion of absolute power that surrounded him. Perhaps, the most striking part of the Great Dictator is the speech given by the barber as a dictator. In that moment, Charlie Chaplin stops acting and looks directly into the camera as if he were talking to the audience watching the film. The speech roused emotion and thoughts and conveyed a sense of urgency: ‘let’s be serious for a moment…’ The speech condemned dictatorship and hate and emphasized the power of the people. Charlie Chaplin used the power in crescendo by starting out very calmly but as his tone increased, so did the emotions that were invoked.
Charlie Chaplin’s use of film to communicate his anti-Nazi message was not because that was the only medium at his disposal. The 1940’s saw a peak in the film industry, despite the great depression as movie tickets still sold in millions every week. Also, “audiences changed becoming younger, more cosmopolitan and more interested in sensation and social observation” (Straubhaar, LaRose, & Davenport, 2014). It was a period where the cultural impact of films was very high both within the United States and Internationally.
The Great Dictator did well in sales and was a commercial success however, it was banned in Germany obviously, and certain parts of Europe that had already been occupied by the Nazis. Nevertheless, “the speech sparked mass controversy between government officials, film-makers, and the American public. This was one of the first times a good portion of the American population was exposed to a comedy that was much engaged with politics” (Fontaine, 2013). After it was released, Americans who generally had no opinion on Hitler one way or the other, began to take sides especially after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the UK, the film was not screened at first until they went to war with Germany. Screening the movie was like a stamp of approval from the United Kingdom, against Nazi Germany. “The American government sought to harness Chaplin’s appeal to the public. The power of his final speech seemed to encourage Americans to enter the war and he even recited his infamous speech at President Roosevelt’s inauguration” (Fontaine, 2013). The Great Dictator inspired other political movies like ‘The Interview’ which is a satirical film that mocks the North Korean dictator. There is so much power in the speech Charlie Chaplin delivered at the end that some modern-day dictators have taken measures to block or limit access to the film. Today we have political movies like The Help, 12 years a slave and Taken that highlight historical and real time societal issues, through film.
The Great Dictator is a classic example of how films can be used as a political tool. Films are used to tell stories by bringing images and sound to life on a screen. It has been used to promote various political views and movements. The SMCR model helps us understand how the messages are communicated and received by the audience. Filmmakers or producers as a source, can determine the content (message) of films and as an independent producer, Charlie Chaplin had the freedom to portray an unpopular sentiment at a time when studios were courting their international audience. As a channel, films have proved to be resilient in the face of changing times as seen during the great depression where movie sales were still up. Filmmakers have recognized the power that film has and have harnessed it to bring stories about slavery, the past wars, violence and various societal issues.
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