Can Films Change the World?

Will Argo or Lincoln change lives? They’ll certainly redistribute more than a little wealth and also spur countless dinner party arguments about historical accuracy. But more than that? Or is that enough for an Oscar?

Should films, and particularly celebrated films, change lives? A cynic might claim that the Oscars aren’t about changing lives but something close to the opposite. They might be simply a celebration of the technical and human brilliance at transmogrifying even the most serious of topics into mere entertainment.

Geoff Russell, March 2013

Certainly some films can change lives. But Oscar films? How many of these change the arc of a person’s being rather than just the way they spend a couple of hours? Even if accurate, my generalisation will flounder before counterexamples.

Last week I went to a free viewing of a film that won’t get an Oscar but has won some other prizes. Peaceable Kingdom is a documentary that was shown as part of the Adelaide Fringe Festival in a free double bill with a talk by vegan benefactor Philip Wollen, one of the people behind the Sea Shepherd campaigns against barbarism in the Southern Ocean. It’s wonderful seeing Australian politicians fall over each other arguing about the best ways to fight whaling while happily allowing Australian industries of equivalent barbarism to operate with the full protection of the law. It’s an indication that they are perhaps one good film away from changing their lives. Maybe Peaceable Kingdom is that film.

My use of the word “vegan” is a spoiler about the film’s subject matter … animals and our relationships with them.

The star of the film for me was a sheep. She’d been separated from her lamb during the rescue of hundreds of animals from an animal hoarder. Found amid squalor and a jaw dropping graveyard of bones and bodies in varying stages between life and death, many sheep were separated after a decision by the equivalent of our RSPCA Inspectors that the lambs would be better off fostered on their own, rather than kept with their mums. But the decision was soon reversed and trailer loads of lambs started to arrive at a paddock holding the sheep. The sheep soon realised what was happening and the camera focused on one in particular as she waited anxiously on the arrival of each new load to see if her lamb was on board. I’ve not had much to do with sheep in my life, but the anxiety in the body language of the sheep was instantly recognisable as she watched the lambs unload. It could have been any mother separated from her child by any disaster on the planet. It happened to be a sheep. Forget Sally Field as Molly Lincoln mourning her son, or Meryl Streep and Sophie’s Choice, if the sheep had been acting, she’d have outshone both for an Oscar.

But of course it was no act and the removal of farm animals from their mums is a daily part of modern farming.

What happened? Was her lamb alive? See the film.

The human stars of Peaceable Kingdom mainly played second fiddle to the animals, but come primarily from the animal farming community. Howard Lyman hauled his 170 kg red necked body away from his life as a 4th generation cattle rancher with 1,000 cattle on grass and 6,000 in feedlots. His wife talks about her 6 year old son’s tears during his first experience of branding cattle. Like her, she remarks, he sooned toughened up. But it’s just a shell. She now knows it. It’s useful when you need to kill an animal that is beyond help. But it’s a shell that has been promoted to a position of incompetence. Toughness in the face of the suffering of others has become a tool to run and promote industries like whaling, chicken meat, cattle meat that we simply don’t need. Harold Brown is also an ex-cattle man who describes his awakening to animal feelings as worthy of respect as “a journey home”. He’d always realised that the strong bonds he felt with his dogs were both instinctive and rational but it took him years to understand that the violence he practised as a cattle farmer was simply the result of the repression of his basic instincts.

The film certainly has some graphic footage, though not a lot in comparison to the daily hidden horrors behind the meat and dairy supply chain. But it’s difficult for me to judge the impact of such things. I’ve seen it all many times over many years. I’ve been through the toughening process and have killed when necessary. But the emotional impact of a joyful bond between human and animal seems never to lose its power to move. Watching people play chasey with goats has the same undiminished power to provoke pleasure as watching any group of children happily doing the same thing. So the film works more through positive images than shock and horror, but it certainly doesn’t avoid the truth.

You didn’t see Peaceable Kingdom at the Oscars, but if you are game for a possibly life changing experience, track it down and watch it. Be warned, you may never be the same again.