Taking film seriously: an exploration of cinema and social justice

In this blog Martin Hall and Lauren Stephenson, senior lecturers in Film and Media & Communications, discuss their ‘Cinema and Social Justice’ Project.

The Cinema and Social Justice project is born out of a mutual interest and belief in the power of film to encourage exploration, facilitate learning and affect meaningful change. What began as conversations over coffee about the emotive and persuasive power of films grew into a desire to investigate and argue for the essential role that film and filmmaking fulfils in reflecting, and to some extent shaping, societies and contributing to social, political and ideological shifts.

In launching the project in 2021, we sought to bring together university lecturers, students and thinkers from both within and outside of academia to explore the potential of film. As lecturers and researchers of Film and its study, we see daily the ways in which Film galvanises our students in discussions of wider social, political and historical issues. Discussions with our students prompted us to consider more closely the relationship between education, cinema and social change. Both of us, in our research, have written about film as a vehicle to challenge dominant political, social and historical contexts; this project gives us the opportunity to take our previous work on class, gender, race and sexuality in film from the page into practice; in public-facing and educational settings. Our focus is on the often-neglected social justice work that cinema does , in imagining new worlds and alternative narratives, in engaging and moving viewers to reconsider their long-held positions and perspectives, and in encouraging audiences to confront pressing social justice issues. We are interested in the questions which cinema can answer for us about race, gender & sexuality, homelessness, poverty, education, healthcare, and policing, in addition to ecological justice in sustainability, and ecological consciousness and climate anxiety. 

Our work began with a short introductory video and a blog – a continued work in progress – where we are beginning to collate and curate responses to cinema from a diverse range of authors. Submissions so far have included work on gender-based violence in cinema, subjectivity and representation of the working class and social activist films. It is this diverse and exploratory discourse, this exchange of ideas regarding film and social justice, that is central to the project’s ethos and therefore the blog itself. Our blog will eventually form a repository for writing focussed on social justice in the cinema; an archive of sorts, which will inspire further work in education and scholarship.

In January 2022, motivated by a sustained disregard for the Arts & Humanities by government policies, and Film Studies in particular, we began the project’s first substantial undertaking. In collaboration with Dr Steve Rawle, we pitched a filmmaking project to the Screen Industries Growth Network (SIGN), for which we successfully secured funding. This project has entailed the curation of a short archival film which we have commissioned from the Yorkshire Film Archive (YFA). This film, Cost of Living, will be screened to further education students via a series of workshops where students will be encouraged to engage with both the potential and the limitations of the film, provoking reflection on the social justice issues that the film responds to. The extent to which their position on these issues has been influenced by the film and its contents will be surveyed and our team will be writing a series of journal articles interrogating this empirical audience research.

Our film speaks directly to issues of socio-economic justice, YFA having provided a wealth of footage from Yorkshire and the North East which chronicles the historical experiences and impact of cost-of-living crises. The film includes footage  filmed across Yorkshire and the North East, recording experiences of those affected by economic insecurity, rising costs and diminishing social services. Much of the footage comes from the 1970s and early 1980s, provoking an eerie familiarity and a sense of history doomed to repeat. Much of the activism and reflection in this footage echoes resoundingly in contemporary discourse surrounding the developing cost of living crisis in 2022.

The unique quality of curated archival footage brings filmed histories and the film viewer closer together and we were excited to set this potential to work in encouraging the study of film. The greatest challenge in producing Cost of Living was reckoning with which histories – whose histories – had been committed to film and which histories and whose histories we are asked to empathise and relate to. Whilst the voices and concerns featured in the film undoubtedly resonate with contemporary social justice issues, the film and the archive itself do have an overabundance of footage which centres white, male voices. This, in and of itself, provokes vital discussion regarding the ways in which we preserve, record and navigate film histories. To recognise the potential of film to affect social change, we must also acknowledge the limitations of our current relationship with film and its histories. We are particularly interested in taking this issue to our student workshops – scheduled for early 2023 – to hear from the next generation of film audiences, filmmakers and, perhaps even scholars. If you’d like more information about the project, and the ways you could get involved, please visit our site or get in touch at: cinemaandsociajustice@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter: @CinemaJustice.