Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Residing at the heart of my hometown in the Philippines and sandwiched between street vendors and stationary stores was Reel World, my dad’s old VHS rental shop, a local counterpart to the U.S.’s Blockbuster, but much humbler. I remember the satisfaction of hearing the click of a VHS tape rewinder cuing that a movie was ready. We looked forward to the weeks when dad availed new movies, readily visible to the customers who entered. In the shop were vivid wall posters of a Robin Williams or Julia Roberts film, one of the Rush Hour movies, and, of course, Titanic.
My family’s devotion to film lasted longer than Reel World’s three-year run. My brother is a film critic and animator today. Along with my occasional leisurely film-viewing, I love engaging with film from spiritual and philosophical vantage points, locating themes underneath the overarching plot. This, to me, was a source of pleasure and comfort. Since the pandemic, film offered short-lived yet substantive escapes while surviving a tumultuous, ever-shaping world.
There has been a rise of artists and storytellers—filmmakers included—who create and play at the forefront of liberation work. Movies, music, zines, poetry collections, anthologies, art galleries, and other artistic expressions are the emblems that reflect truths about us. This includes our colonial history and present reality of inequity and racial injustice. In a talk titled “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” James Baldwin says, “The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t.”
Simultaneously, the artist can be the one to incite the collectively inherent but mostly repressed desire for social change. As much as artists reflect who we are as a society, they are also the ones who embolden us to imagine and co-create a better world. They shape us as much as they reflect us, which is why artists and storytellers have not only been some of the most powerful change agents since the beginning of time, but are also the most threatening to state power. This makes sense why books exposing and challenging fascist regimes are burned, protest songs are being banned, and that freedom of speech and of the press is threatened and censored when they question and critique government leadership.
Film is also nuanced. The industry has a long history of being weaponized by the state to manipulate the public about militarism and the federal government, working directly with the industry to romanticize their enterprises while concealing human rights abuses, war crimes, etc. Film has also enabled and normalized White supremacist ideals by eclipsing the talent and vitality of Black, Indigenous, and artists of color who are subjected to more obstacles in the industry than their White counterparts. If you remember the film posters I previously listed in Reel World, you might have noticed the predominantly White casts these movies had. The store rarely advertised Filipino movies even though it was based in the Philippines. American stories overshadowed ours, and White actors and creators have always been hyper-visible in the realms of performance and production all over the world. Among these are also Hollywood’s foundations of oppression, profiting from minstrelsy, racism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, and ableism.
Film can be a beacon in identifying who and where we are, while also inspiring us to where we could be headed.
At the same time, we recognize that the world of film brought us Black Panther. This story changed the course of superhero genres with an African hero-king guided and defended by femme warriors, situated in an African utopia untouched by colonization. Filmmaking also brought us the critical imagination of Bong Joon-ho, whose Parasite awakened us to the grotesque realities of capitalism. It showed the stark divide between the rich and the poor no matter the physical proximity. For me, the most recent movie that I find to be formative is Everything Everywhere All At Once. As a child of the diaspora, the film moved me to foster compassion for my intergenerational relationships. But what was so powerful about Everything Everywhere All At Once was that it had specificity: What can reconciliation and healing among intergenerational relationships look like within the immigrant experience and, more specifically, Asian families in the diaspora?
In my clinical work, a number of clients and I use film to make sense of their experiences. Movies can provide the language to illuminate and validate a viewer’s emotions, questions, and most hidden desires, especially when words aren’t accessible or sufficient to articulate feelings. Often, people with trauma use art and storytelling to process and metabolize their experiences, because their pain is often unnameable. Storytelling—in all its images, metaphor, movement, and sounds—can be reflectors for self-understanding and containers for easing pain from times of crisis.
With this in mind, film can be a beacon in identifying who and where we are, while also inspiring us to where we could be headed. Alternatively, film can also be a dangerous and misdirecting flame that distorts our conceptions and imaginations of our humanity and sociopolitical conditions. But we can and should be critical of the literature and media content we absorb. Like any form of art and storytelling, we can allow films to ease our nervous systems while also inspiring and encouraging us to press on to a future with more beauty, integrity, and freedom.
Gabes Torres is a psychotherapist, organizer, and artist. Her work focuses on anti-colonial approaches and practices within the mental health field. She also focuses on abolitionist organizing on a global scale. You can find most of her work on her official website, www.gabestorres.com, and social media platforms, including Instagram.