Can Films Really Build the Common Good?

We’ve talked a bit about how films can be oriented toward Process Philosophy and the work of Alfred North Whitehead. Here, I’d like to explore how independent films can contributes to the common good. Most artists and creators hope their work in some way impacts culture, possibly even by changing it for the better. But can independent cinema move things further toward the common good of humanity?

My answer stems in part from my work as a pastor. In my experiences walking with people through their lives, I have observed that when something bad happens—whether within the world at large or in our communities—people want to help make things better. Oftentimes, however, people will feel helpless. There is a frustration around this helplessness, around feeling powerless and unable to intervene. As a result, we often look to big picture solutions: how can we get involved in volunteering, legislation, systemic change?

These are vitally important impulses. They make us more aware of the lived reality of our communities, whether they be local or global. They spur all of the cosmos toward a more just, loving, and sustainable future. Yet how can cinema influence these impulses? Perhaps creating an independent film for the common good, about a topic that’s pressing to these current shared experiences, could help bring about such a future!

Let us also not overlook the importance that our seemingly small, day-to-day actions can have on this future as well. Countless times in the work I do, I have seen how one person’s consistent, loving, and generous behavior has a ripple effect out to the wider community, touching people in ways they likely will never know. Perhaps films for the common good—those that address our current shared experiences—could fall into this category. A compelling social activist film can inspire us, and can result in behaviors and practices that permeate into the world at large.

This is why we do what we do at Common Good Film Festival! We believe that films for the common good—creating them, viewing them, discussing them, experiencing them with friends—can and do contribute to moving our reality toward ways of being that bring about a better world.

Alexis Lillie is the Communications Coordinator at the Center for Process Studies. She is passionate about using her theological and marketing training to help communities explore big spiritual and religious questions. She has an M.Div from Union Theological Seminary and also serves as the Associate Pastor at Church of the Village UMC in New York City. Prior to ministry, she ran her own marketing and social media consultancy for ten years. She lives in Manhattan with her daughter, Junia, and beagle, Reba.

Film and Process Philosophy: Movies as Lures for Creative Transformation

As we begin preparing for the 22nd annual Common Good International Film Festival, I figure a word on the relationship between process philosophy and cinema is in order. Can films really “celebrate the wisdom of Alfred North Whitehead,” as our tagline proclaims? Process thinkers respond with a resounding “YES!”—and also Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” may provide some helpful pointers for understanding why great films are able to be so impactful and transformative.

What Makes Cinema Unique?

Film is a unique artform as it exists in time as well as space, a feature it shares with music and theater. As a result, development and transformation are essential features of films. As we watch a movie, we experience shifting moods, maturation of characters, and cycles of tension and release within the unfolding of the narrative. Though a movie may also be considered as a singular, cohesive, and whole work of art, each individual scene and each particular character contribute something unique and essential to the progression of the story.

This means that the viewer of the film goes on journeys of transformation with the characters. Rather than having a privileged position seemingly outside of time and space, we the viewers are constantly alongside the characters with each new development, each shift in narrative, each realization and inner transformation.

This closeness provides an insider’s perspective to the experience of various characters and allows us to get a real sense of what it would be like to go through similar challenges and explore similar questions. In some sense the art of film involves presenting viewers with an array of standpoints for empathy and insight, evoking new perspectives and spurring visceral realizations.

A Whiteheadian Perspective

In the language of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, these various standpoints give us unique prehensions of actualities and the relationships between them, and these prehensions in turn become incorporated within our own being in our own process of becoming and development.

Films aren’t merely storehouses of factual information presented in video format. Many films are purely fictional, yet often such stories are able to present truths that are felt to be deeply real. The prehensions we get from films are open-ended, and irreducible to a simple binary of true or false. Indeed, Whitehead thinks that this type of analytical judgment is a special and limited subset of the much broader and more fundamental category of feeling.

And these feelings can be extremely powerful. The visceral experiences provided from a great movie may inspire transformations—from apathy to engagement, from anger to empathy, from disregard to gratitude, from ignorance to insight. In this way films and their individual artistic components—narrative, acting, cinematography, sound design—all come together as lures for the viewer; invitations to open to novel relationships and new possibilities not previously considered.

Film reel stock photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

Cinema, Creative Transformation, and the Common Good

So what does this have to do with the “common good?” Well, to start, the lures of cinema have the power to inspire an ethical transformation and renew commitments to particular aims. In our era, films which explore topics of race or otherwise present experiences and struggles of various marginalized peoples provide a much needed bridge to the “lived experiences” of such peoples. Being able to empathize with these experiences through artful exploration in films allows for a deeply felt connection which can provide the basis for real solidarity in social, political, and economic life.

Likewise ecological cinema is able to give a voice to those creatures who otherwise do not have access to communication in language. In powerful films of this genre, the trees, the bears, the fish, the algae—indeed, even entire ecosystems, watersheds, and the biosphere—enter into the diverse tapestry of feelings which constitute our being according to process thinkers.

In Whitehead’s famous line, “the many become one, and are increased by one” (Process and Reality, 21), and in engaging deeply with great films we are able to take in a multiplicity of perspectives, feelings, insights, and convictions and integrate these into our being as engaged human agents. Through this process, we come away transformed, with something added to our internal resources, something we can draw on to promote the common good in the midst of our interconnected lives.

Jared Morningstar is a writer and educator with academic interests in philosophy of religion, Islamic studies, comparative religion, metamodern spirituality, and interfaith dialogue whose work in these areas seeks to offer robust responses to issues of inter-religious conflict, contemporary nihilism, and the “meaning crisis” among other things. Jared works for the Center for Process Studies and the Cobb Institute where he supports these organizations in promoting a process-relational worldview. He holds BAs in Religion and Scandinavian Studies from Gustavus Adolphus College, where he graduated in the spring of 2018.

Want to keep thinking about film and process philosophy? Check out this article on Open Horizons by Jay McDaniel and ​Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat: Spiritual Literacy through Films.

Depolarizing Cinema for a Polarized World

After two years of COVID delays, venue changes, and numerous other transitions, the Common Good International Film Festival is proud to return to Claremont for its 22nd year! Since 2001, CGIFF has celebrated challenging, eye-opening cinema from around the globe that looks to make the world a better place. These films have helped foster important conversations about the nature and value of the common good—a concept that has continued to grow in importance since CGIFF’s inception. Twenty-two years on, we continue to make those conversations more enlightening, inspiring, and life-affirming than ever before.

For our upcoming 2023 festival, we have decided to take on a specific theme: Depolarizing cinema for a polarized world. The last few years have seen our planet rocked with violent international conflicts, a debilitating global pandemic, and an ever-worsening climate crisis. To top it all off, media outlets and political factions are more divided than ever, making it hard to figure out where the problems themselves even come from. It often feels impossible to find goodness in a world where hostility and hatred receive the most clicks, where people are trying to destroy rather than to build.

From February 17-20, CGIFF is offering the chance to rediscover the goodness that persists within us all. We will be screening a handpicked selection of high-quality feature and short films, each of which celebrates human kindness, decency, and dignity. Such films are not always easy. In order to look towards a better future, we must tackle global issues head-on, and the cinema that explores them should be honest about their severity. Our curatorial vision looks for films that take a clear-eyed view of political, social, and environmental issues, and that cultivate a realistic hope of positive transformation.

We must now more than ever look towards visions of unity rather than separation. We must bring depolarizing cinema to our ever-more polarized world. This is the mission of the Common Good: to find those essential sources of common humanity and cooperation, and to use them to foster a better future. 

Jim Fahey is an emerging film critic and curator who works as CGIFF’s Assistant Director. He has spent the past year building his resumé at the University of Edinburgh, where he completed a Master’s program in Film, Exhibition & Curation. During that time he served as a film critic for The Student, the longest-running student newspaper in the UK, and also began Airplane Mode, a film-review blog currently available on Substack.