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Why Bringing Tragedy To Life Through Film Is Important

01/02/2017 10:24 | Updated 08 February 2017

On Patriots’ Day, April 15, 2013, a pair of homemade pressure cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of America’s annual Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring almost 300 more.

Motivated by extremist Islamist beliefs, Chechen-American brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev were quickly identified as the terrorists responsible, and within four days of the attack, Tamerlan was dead and his younger brother captured. Sentenced to death on June 24, 2015, Dzhokhar is currently awaiting execution.

Around the same time as Dzhokhar’s sentencing, director Peter Berg declared his intention to shoot a movie about the bombing and subsequent manhunt. Local press complained it was much too soon for Hollywood to dramatise an event that the city was still recovering from. Even local boy and star Mark Wahlberg, who’d previously worked with Berg on Lone Survivor (2013) and Deepwater Horizon (2016), admitted to feeling some trepidation over tackling such a raw, touchy subject. Encouraged by meetings with survivors of the attack, though, Berg felt certain the time was right.

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”Boston is such a small community,” he said. “Everybody knows somebody who was affected. It’s a sensitive subject. I was really on the fence and kind of reluctant to commit. Then I realised, they’re going to make the movie anyway. I might as well be in control of it.”

“With a strong director at the helm, Patriots Day is a successful representation not only of tragedy but of the love, determination and support that can spur out of the ashes,” wrote Film Inquiry’s Stephanie Archer.

“Overall,” adds Chicago Sun-Times critic Richard Roeper, “[Patriots Day] is a Boston Strong film about one of the worst terrorist attacks ever on American soil, and a community’s resounding response.”

Released in UK cinemas on February 23, Patriots Day is not the first film to tackle the troubling issue of true-life terrorism head on. Nor is terrorism the first sensitive subject confronted by Hollywood. Though the delay between tragedy and subsequent movie adaptation has certainly shortened over the years, dramas inspired by calamity, heartbreak and horror are not only common but also essential to our collective well-being.

Segen’s Medical Dictionary defines the therapeutic prescription of films as Cinema Therapy, “…a form of therapy or self-help that uses movies, particularly videos, as therapeutic tools. Cinema therapy can be a catalyst for healing and growth for those who are open to learning how movies affect people and to watching certain films with conscious awareness.”

For addiction, we’d prescribe Leaving Las Vegas (1995). For domestic abuse, The Accused (1988). For obsessive–compulsive disorder, 1991’s What About Bob?

“Cinema therapy,” details Segen’s, “allows one to use the effect of imagery, plot, music, etc. in films on the psyche for insight, inspiration, emotional release or relief and natural change. Used as part of psychotherapy, cinema therapy is an innovative method based on traditional therapeutic principles.”

Viewing movies, says Dr Gary Solomon, author of The Motion Picture Prescription and Reel Therapy “can have a positive effect on most people”.

Beyond therapy, films take us to school. 

“Everything I learned,” said actress and humanitarian Audrey Hepburn, “I learned from watching movies.” Through cinema, we learn about the world. Often we’re inspired to discover more. To dig deeper.

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Movies are our history lessons. It’s likely more people today know about the Vietnam War from Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) than they do from any books or even documentaries on the subject. Not only do films put history in context, but also they make it relatable, giving it emotional resonance.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote philosopher George Santayana, who no doubt approved of the educational properties of a powerful movie.

“Films as educational tools for learning and informing about Holocaust history have become instrumental in ensuring the memory of the horrifying mass brutality and destruction of the Jewish people,” wrote historian Joanna Katz.

Though relatively few people will ever visit a concentration camp, the accessibility and power of films like Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002) and Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful (1997) keeps the memory of the Holocaust alive, because there are things we must never forget, no matter how painful they are to remember.

Beside allowing us to confront the unimaginable, 9/11 movies like Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (1996) and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2006) promote healing because, rather than simply focus on the terror act itself, they inspire with accounts of heroism, sacrifice, kindness and decency.

They acknowledge the world is a dark place, but at the same time, remind us of the bright lights within in. They encourage us to keep the faith. To keep going. Both in life, and to the movies, to see films like Patriots Day.

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