“I’ve always believed that cinema has a significant political role to play in times of crisis, such as those we are currently living in,” Lord David Puttnam said in a passionate keynote address of the Edinburgh International Film Festival yesterday. “At its best, cinema does retain a remarkable ability to speak to people of every age, from every background, and in ways that almost any other art form in popular culture struggles to compete with.”
Describing himself as a “quasi-politician” and “something of an outsider” in his introductory remarks, Puttnam is perhaps best known Stateside for his work as a producer of films such as “The Mission,” “Chariots of Fire,” and “The Killing Fields.” He additionally had a controversial term as the CEO of Columbia Pictures in the mid to late ’80s, in which he was heavily criticized for a condescending attitute toward the Hollywood film industry. Since his retirement from the film industry, he has turned his focus to public policy and education. A rather endless list of examples include chairing London’s National Film and Television School, serving as president of the UK chapter of Unicef, and sitting on the Labour bench of the UK’s House of Lords.
A remarkably qualified voice to speak on concerns of political cinema, Puttnam spoke passionately and urgently to a large crowd that included scores of young filmmakers (and Sir Sean Connery), urging that the film sector must prepare for “a new round of change.”
Economics are often the focus of discussions of change in the film sector, but Puttnam made clear that this “does not begin to describe the broader impact of the medium.” And it’s it’s largely thanks to festivals such as Edniburgh that “the counter-argument gets any traction at all.” “As will once again become clear this week,” Puttnam said, “within the world of cinema there can still be found authentic ‘moral’ voices; which is why at its best cinema remains capable of that most valuable of all cultural gifts – thought leadership.”
Cinema has historically played a role in inabling people to reimagine a world in times of crisis. Puttnam noted this, referencing Italian neo-realism after the war, much of the work of the Nouvelle Vague in the sixties; films like “Rome Open City,” “Battle of Algiers” and “Le Weekend.” But Puttnam feels that currently, cinema is “far too timid about using its ability to positively influence young minds in the way that they see and respond to the world.”
“I’m not naive enough to pretend that on its own cinema can capture the very soul of significant social and cultural problems,” he said. “But through illuminating the sometimes very different lives and experiences of others – most particularly those of the young, and especially the vulnerable – it can help create that vital context of understanding within which the type of change that sometimes looks impossible begins to look possible.”
Once you cross this “frontier of doubt,” Puttnam said, trust begins to develop. “Before you know it, the unthinkable comes thinkable,” he argued. “Maybe even achievable. In fact, if we ever ceased to believe that, we’d probably cease making movies. This is why cinema and its relationship to history and the real world matters.”
He argued that “far and away,” the most important role of the individual filmmaker is to help “illustrate and explain the ambiguities and the complexities of life.” “In doing so, [they can] somehow help promote understanding,” he said, “and where necessary, create narrative to support or encourage dialogue – leading in some cases to the possiblility of a few difficult but acceptable compromises. That’s essentially, I think, the message that Barack Obama was trying to get across a few weeks ago during his tour of the Middle East.”
“In a tiny way,” Puttnam said this is what he was trying to do in the films he produced that dealt with factual or historic events. “In every case, we tried to produce to films that adhered to some definable concept of cultural integrity… As intelligent and responsible filmmakers, working in a free society, we have a duty to ensure that our chosen medium is a force for good. Especially in this ever-more complex and difficult world… Make no mistake, the challenges that we as a society will face – the consequence of global warming alone – will make today’s issues look like very small beer indeed.”
Puttnam said that its in this future that “brave and political cinema” could really come into its own. “We’ve already seen last week, in relation to events in Iran how digital tools like Twitter can become channels for voices of dissent. it’s crucial that cinema remains responsive to the political climate if it’s not to look increasingly irrelevant to the really big challenges of the 21st century..”
To help drive that point home, Puttnam finished with a story involving his work on “The Killing Fields,” a narrative exploration of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.
In 1983, Puttnam was asked by the British Film Council to take the film to Kiev, Ukraine for a British film festival there. Puttnam arrived unaware of what a difficult environment Ukraine was at the time, with the East and West sections of the country fighting over political and religious issues. The film screened three times, mostly for students around the ages of 16-25, with Puttnam participating in a Q&A session after the film.
“What was fascinating about it [was that] all the questions from these young people were not about Cambodia, they wouldn’t mention it. They were all about ‘could that happen here,’ ‘what would be the implications,’ and ‘is this a metaphor for Ukraine.’ They got straight to heart of the metaphor within the more obvious narrative.”
Twenty or so years later, after the peaceful Orange Revolution was staged in Ukraine, bringing President Viktor Yushchenko to power and civility to the nation. Puttnam randomly ran into a friend while in Davos, who just happened to be with Yushchenko. They were introduced, with Puttnam’s friend noting that he had produced “The Killing Fields.” Upon hearing this, Yushchenko literally picked Puttnam up, hugged him, and rambled on in Ukranian. Puttnam asked his friend what was going on.
“What he wants you to know,” his friend said. “Is that your film was seen by every school in the Ukraine between the years of 1985 and 1995. And you’ll remember, that even during the worst of worst times, there was never any discussion of the possibility of a civil war. He wants you to know that the reason that that was the case is that every young person – those who had staged the Orange Revolution – had seen ‘The Killing Fields.'”
“Now I can’t for a moment say that when [director] Roland Joffé or the rest of us had any of that in mind when we made the film,” Puttnam said. “But it gives you course to realize the impact and effect and the reprecussions of the story that you are telling, and that erhaps something you haven’t considered suddenly becomes hugely important.”