Find out more about Tony Kashani and his book, “Movies Change Lives” at tonykashani.com.
There’s more to watching movies than sitting in the dark for two hours and eating a tub of popcorn.
Tony Kashani believes great films also can inspire people to change their own lives and even fight for social change. He wrote a book on the subject, called “Movies Change Lives,” and published it earlier this year. It’s his fourth book on the social impact of popular culture.
In “Movies Change Lives,” Kashani contends that cinema is a major player in the relationship between a society and its people, translating universal issues like economic inequality, racial strife and rapidly changing technology into human terms.
“There are particular elements that all people relate to and have similar experiences with,” said Kashani, a media studies instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College.
“With its universal language, cinema can help us respect our differences while sharing common values, goals and aspirations,” Kashani said.
He believes that films can bring people together by shifting the cultural focus away from mindless action, commercialism and stereotypes. Instead, films can embrace the broader themes of life, love, justice and moral courage, and a film about parents and teachers working together to save a school can inspire people to launch similar crusades in their own communities.
“Therefore, seeing a film can be personally transformative, but also socially transformative,” he said. “In this book. I argue that cinema can indeed be an agent to usher in such transformation.”
As an example, he cites Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary about the McDonald’s restaurant chain, “Supersize Me,” which challenged viewers to question their own eating habits, as well as the fast-food industry.
Kashani chose these seven films to illustrate his premise, explaining that he believes they can change how we treat each other, how we view race, religion and our nation, and even how we relate to reality.
1. “Queen of Katwe,” 2016. A Ugandan girl sees her life rapidly change after being introduced to the game of chess.
“This is a refreshingly rare film where the protagonist is an African teenage girl, and all the other characters are African as well. It is, of course, a melodrama that can easily make one cry with compassion and empathy and at once feel good about the human spirit and our innate ability to persevere.”
2. “Snowden,” 2016. Based on the true story of Edward Snowden, a National Security Agency employee who leaked thousands of classified documents to the press, revealing the NSA’s illegal surveillance techniques.
“This film raises the question of ‘what is patriotism?’ and the meaning of ‘American freedom.’ Filmmaker Oliver Stone stays with the facts and does not sugar-coat anything. It also presents what a quintessentially American form of courage looks like, something we used to have and have lost to the corrupting nature of power.”
3. “Her,” 2013. A lonely writer (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer operating system, voiced by Scarlett Johansson.
“The film compels us to think about our relationship with technology. It’s a message to humanity that we need to reconnect as human beings and experience each other and create a collective consciousness. So people can become conscious and take action: maybe working less, or changing jobs.”
4. “Doubt,” 2008. In 1964, a Catholic school principal (Meryl Streep) questions a priest’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) possible sexual abuse of a troubled young student.
“This film can be transformative for those who are blinded by their privileges and biases. It could be particularly transformative for an audience that has grown up in a strict religious system where you’re not supposed to question things that are taught to you.”
5. “The Matrix,” 1999. A computer hacker (Keanu Reeves) learns from mysterious rebels about the true nature of his reality and his role in the war against its controllers.
“Over the years, my students and others report back and say, ‘This is one of the films that really continues to stay with me.’ They decide to be more conscious of how they interact with the world through the internet. They can use it for organizing and education, rather than being on Facebook and putting up cat videos.”
6. “The Truman Show,” 1998. An insurance salesman and claims adjuster (Jim Carrey) discovers his entire life is actually a television show.
“This film deals with the fact that we have become a consumer society and the reality that we live in is a fabricated reality, not only through the lens of television but also manipulated by commercialism. For people who don’t think critically about how they’re living their lives, the film could be a jolt to wake them up.”
For example, parents might rethink taking the kids on a trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios, and instead choose destinations that allow their children to see how people live in other cultures, Kashani said. Or the head of a business might decide to focus more on buying from small local vendors within the community.
7. “Mississippi Masala,” 1991. An Indian father and his family moves to Mississippi after being expelled from Uganda when Idi Amin takes power. There the daughter (Sarita Choudhury) falls in love with Dimetrius, an African-American man (Denzel Washington.) It was directed by Mira Nair, who also directed “Queen of Katwe.”
“How often do we encounter cinematic moments where a black man confronts an Indian/African man?” Kashani asked.
The father sees his daughter becoming an American and fears her assimilation. The daughter’s lover resents what he sees as racial discrimination and condescension from the father.
“The film teaches us that identity is a fluid thing. Our identity is in what we do, but also in our homes, where we come from. One has a personal identity and a cultural identity. With all the dispossession and cross-migration of people around the globe, the notion of multiculturalism has become an important part of global discourse, especially here in the United States.”
The movie prompts viewers to look past easy, obvious classifications, and see that people come from many different and often complex backgrounds, Kashani said.