Can film play a role in bridging societal differences?

Jonathan Roberts • Oct 28, 2019 at 3:15 PM

Kiran Singh Sirah is a champion for storytelling as a vessel for peace-building, but can films and documentaries do the same?

Singh Sirah, director of the International Storytelling Center, sees no reason why they can’t.

“I’m new to this, new to film, but for me particularly, I’ve always loved film and I feel film is an incredible medium — it’s a powerful medium,” Singh Sirah said. “It can do so much, and it’s part of the storytelling movement, part of the storytelling genre.”

East Tennessee State University film professor Shara Lange feels similarly, which is why she invited award-winning filmmaker and her friend, PJ Raval, to showcase his newest film “Call Her Ganda” at the Tipton Gallery earlier this month.

“I think it’s a way of talking about some difficult issues that we don’t get lots of opportunities to talk about here,” Lange said of the film.

Raval’s film focuses on the murder of a transgender woman by an American serviceman in the Marines, and the difficult and complicated relationship the United States has with the Philipines, where Raval’s family is from.

“First and foremost, I realized I wanted to make a film that I needed to see,” said Raval, who identifies as a member of the LGTBQ+ community.

And though Raval’s film was met with mixed, albeit mostly positive reviews, he realizes the role his films and others can play in shifting perspectives others may have on certain issues, and bridging divides that often seem chasmic in our society.

“I think these are universal stories, everyone has a story that’s relatable one way or another and I think part of recognizing our differences also allows us to recognize our commonalities,” Raval said. “I think film can play an incredibly important role (in peace building) because it’s an incredibly accessible medium.

“For me, the most appealing thing about film is it’s an intersection of art, communication, audience engagement and community participation,” Raval added.

Of course, using film or other mediums to bring communities together or advocate for change isn’t anything new. For as long as music, movies, art, photos and everything in between have been around, people have used those mediums to spread ideas, protest or bring issues to light. And

“When I think about the movies, the films, I remember, they’re not necessarily the happy ones, they’re the ones that provoke me to think differently, and I’m hoping people are open to being challenged (ideologically),” Singh Sirah said. “That’s the thing I think is important — to see the different sides of the story, it’s about listening and seeing the world through another person’s lens.

“I think that’s the power of film,” Singh Sirah said.

And as dozens of people crowded into the Tipton Gallery’s viewing space, one thing was clear. Film, sometimes, isn’t so much about the message, but about bringing people together. Or, as Singh Sirah sees storytelling, bringing people closer to understanding — the foundation for peace building.