Can going to a movie be an act of protest, a form of activism? The United State of Cinema hopes so: The group has rallied 90 art houses in 34 U.S. states – plus the Royal Cinema in Toronto, and the Rio and VIFF Vancity in Vancouver – to screen 1984 on April 4, to protest Donald Trump's anticipated cuts to arts funding. (April 4 is the day Winston Smith, played by the late John Hurt in Michael Radford's film, begins to rebel against Big Brother by keeping a diary.) Some proceeds will go to local organizations or to underwrite future community-related programming.
The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto also hopes movie-going equals activism: On March 6 through 8, it will show – for free – one film from each of the seven countries named in Trump's Jan. 27 travel ban. The program, called Ban This Series, includes Libya in Motion, about daily life in post-revolution Libya; The Reluctant Revolutionary, a look at the Arab Spring in Yemen; My Country, My Country, about a doctor/politician in Iraq; Stolen Seas, a behind-the-scenes take on Somali pirates; The War Show, pieced together from 300 hours of amateur footage of the resistance in Syria; Beats of the Antonov, about defiance through music in Sudan; and Sonita, about an Afghan teenager who wants to be a rapper in Iran, although her parents plan to sell her into marriage for $9,000 (U.S.).
After Trump announced the ban, "I felt despair," Alan Black, the HDTRC's managing director, said in an interview. His grandparents were immigrants from Poland who fled the Holocaust; his father was born in an internment camp. At their weekly programming meeting that Monday, Black and his staff "brainstormed ways to generate empathy," and landed on Ban This Series.
"We didn't want the films to be polemics," Black says. "We wanted to show relatable stories of everyday people, to create a space for dialogue. It's bigger than Trump. It's about a world where people are living in bubbles, not sharing our points of view. It's important to remind each other that it's not 'us and them' – we're all human beings."
On their own, these films might "a tough sell for date-night Tuesday." But showing them together in a context – not to mention for free – turns them into a draw. "We can't make a statement if people don't go," Black says.
It's also a hedge against preaching to the choir: "Some film images, once people see them, it's hard to think hatefully about the people in them. That's the goal – not to convert someone from one pole to another, but to turn the valve five degrees more toward compassion or acceptance. That's why it's important to get them in front of people."
Protest art has always been with us, but the civil-action component is on the rise. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, which in December cancelled concerts scheduled for April 5 and 6 in North Carolina to protest the state's curbing protections for LGBTQ people, just announced that, instead, it will perform a gala concert called Symphony Pride, highlighting gay and lesbian composers, with most of the proceeds going to non-profits that serve the LGBTQ community. (Coincidentally, the concert will take place April 4.)
Cinemas such as the Metrograph in New York and the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Tex., are curating their fare to highlight arts preservation. Michael Moore refurbished the State Theatre of Traverse City in Michigan to demonstrate that art can boost local economies (of course, it will show 1984 on April 4).
And this weekend, the HDTRC is hosting Curious Minds Weekend (presented in partnership with The Globe and Mail), where speakers including Naomi Klein and Dan Savage will address current issues. "We're rolling up our sleeves and getting more engaged than we've ever been," Black says.
That same impulse led director Thymaya Payne to pivot from merely travelling through Africa to making his film, Stolen Seas, about the 70-day standoff between Somali pirates and the Danish shipping company whose vessel they'd taken over. "It was the 2008 financial crisis," Payne says in a phone interview. "I'd been insulated in California, not paying attention. I wanted to look beyond the headlines."
He discovered "the pirate thing was a distraction from the deeper issues at play in the region. It's about economies, and what happens in countries where there's a vacuum of power." Although his film is five years old, its issues are still hot. "People should be paying attention to the Horn of Africa," Payne declares. "It's like the Wild West. Power goes to these liminal spaces to figure stuff out."
Speaking of increased engagement, Sonita filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami didn't simply document her protagonist's story. She entered into it. "When I learned Sonita's family was going to sell her, I had to negotiate for her," she says in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where Sonita contended for an Independent Spirit Award last Saturday night. "I'm not just a filmmaker, I'm also a human."
Initially, Trump's ban prevented Ghaemmaghami from attending the ISAs. After U.S. federal judges lifted it, she took the opposite tack of Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who refused to attend the Oscars. "I thought, if Trump doesn't want me there, if my going makes him more angry, let's go," she says.
And file this under silver linings: "In some ways, Trump is a gift to the world," Ghaemmaghami adds. "His ban revealed a lot to the American people about their own system. What are the possibilities to stand up against an administration? He's giving people a reason to think about immigration, racism. This is a good time to talk about that, everywhere in the world."
Payne agrees. "The goal of something like Ban This Series is to get people talking, not to give answers," he says. "Films shouldn't be polemics that we nod to. They should be a preface for a larger engagement with the topic, an entrance into the conversation. The really interesting people are the ones whose minds aren't quite made up."
Still, as Ghaemmaghami reminds us, art as activism is a privilege. "Most people who see Sonita will be white Westerners," she says. "The impact would be huge in Afghanistan, but there are no cinemas, because of the Taliban. Watching a movie is a dangerous thing to do."