January 31, 2017
Sundance 2017

Are You Making Ethical Movies? Sundance Filmmakers on Creating 'Fierce' and 'Active' Art

Gael García Bernal and Anand Giridharadas explored how empathy affects their lives and work at Sundance.

The current political climate in America is an unavoidable discussion—and it should be, even at Sundance. Art and politics have always been inherently tied to the human condition; art expresses it, and politics regulate it. And while the government continues to directly affect those who make art, the two are inseparable. 

In fact, art history's most fruitful eras were born of socio-political disruption. The decline of the Catholic Church and widespread trauma from the Black Plague gave rise to the Italian Renaissance. Some of America's most iconic music was written while the country was at war in Vietnam. Through turbulence, artists will rise.

Though Sundance is not an explicitly political event, as Robert Redford mentioned at the opening press conference, the festival simply cannot ignore the stories filmmakers are telling. And many of those are political.

Art and politics have always been inherently tied to the human condition; art expresses it, and politics regulate it.

In recognition of these indelible ties, the Sundance hosted a panel on empathy this year which served as an exercise in that most crucial human—and filmmaking—quality. It was hosted by Philip Himberg, Artistic Director of Sundance Institute's Theater Program, in collaboration with IDEO, and featured Anand Giridharadas (author, columnist) and Gael García Bernal (actor, filmmaker) as speakers.

Perhaps as a result of the theme, the panel unfolded in a non-traditional, interactive format. Himberg presented a game: each round, the audience had to move around the room in response to "versus" statements. The center of the room was neutral, while the left and right sides represented opposing ideas. Whatever your politics, this panel's biggest takeaway is that we should all be making art with firm empathetic intentions.

Theatre Program Artistic Director Philip Himberg speaks onstage during 'Creative Tensions: Empathy' developed by IDEO + Sundance Institute.Credit: Sundance Institute, photographer: Stephen Speckman

Should film disrupt or unite?

"The time for films to say and hold certainties is long gone," said Bernal. "I think it's time for films to raise questions. It is important for films to have a Brechtian approach—to bring in a problem and make the audience responsible for carrying that problem. And that, in a way, unites."

Giridharadas followed up: "I think so much of our education and training is trying to unite us. We all study the Constitution and the same books growing up, and I think most people's lives are more in a rut than they wished they were. No one imagines that for their life when they're 18, but by the time you get to a certain age, you kind of think the same things, and your friends all think the same things, and you go to the same kinds of coffee shops, and you're limited."

"And when you pay $10 to go to a movie," he continued, "it feels like that's a really rare chance to get thrown on your butt. And to maybe be displaced." 

John Cooper, the festival's Director, argued on the side of unity. "I'm really all about the happy ending," he laughed. "Really, the uniting part is when you show us all the problems, then you show us a solution... people just walk away from disruption sometimes with nothing. It makes them uncomfortable. I've seen audiences here very uncomfortable and they just walk away."

"The time for films to say and hold certainties is long gone. It's time for films to raise questions." — Gael García Bernal

Filmmaker takeaway: Ask yourself about your film's story goals and intended consequences. Do you believe that causing disruption is enough? Or should you present solutions in an attempt to unite your audience?

Credit: Creative Tensions, IDEO

Does empathy come from instinct or practice?

Bernal and Giridharadas stood together again on the side of "cultivated practice." 

Giridharadas began by speaking about the empathetic work he went through for his last book, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas. "I think when you see someone crying and you say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry,' or someone has a loss, we often use the word empathy for that, but that's not what I actually take it to mean," he said. "And I'm speaking as someone who writes and thinks about it in a professional context first. It's very easy to scrunch your face up when someone else seems sad, and quite an important thing to do in many situations." 

"This word, empathy, is perhaps the only reason why I keep acting." — Gael García Bernal

But in work, empathy is more active. "I wrote about a white supremacist. He's a white supremacist who was very poorly educated, who was a murderer, and had never left Dallas, Texas. So, except for the murderer thing, we had nothing in common." (That's a joke.) "And so, it wasn't a gut reaction understanding this guy. If I had to rely on that, I would've never been able to write the book. It took me a really long time, thinking reading, going over, doing new drafts... even rewriting myself to understand."

The way he did it—rather, the way he cultivated practice—was in "trying to not treat him as a whole with whom I have no connection, but trying to break him down into blocks with whom I may have a connection."

"If you can break someone down like that," he continued, "you often have links to their building blocks, even if you don't have a link to their being."

Bernal weighed in with his own experiences. "This word, empathy, is perhaps the only reason why I keep acting," he said. "I've kind of come to terms with the idea that acting is a work of empathy, an interesting and an amazing way of cultivating that empathy. If you're going to interpret the character of a person that killed someone, I don't identify with that person, but I can empathize emotionally. Whatever [their motivation] is, I want to discover it."

Filmmaker takeaway: Tackle characters you don't innately understand. Break them down to their "building blocks" and try to empathize with individual traits. 

Gael García Bernal participates in 'Creative Tensions: Empathy' developed by IDEO + Sundance Institute.Credit: Sundance Institute, photographer: Stephen Speckman

Should a leader show grace or action?

The room—and our two protagonists—were fairly divided on this one. 

Giridharadas was torn. With the mention of administrations past and present, he expressed both a love of and a concern for leaders with perhaps too much grace. "I feel like it's a limited value," he said, "that it sometimes prevents you from being fierce and being truthful."

"To be graceful is to be radical." — Gael García Bernal

Bernal was not so sure: "I'm very surprised that grace is not considered an action." Referencing his own experiences in Mexico, he said, "I come from a country that's deeply hurt right now. And we definitely need this narrative of grace to come together and unite in a benevolent way with benevolent actions, with compassion, and also with a lot of valor. Because nowadays, according to the narrative that's been established, to be graceful is to be radical. To do good will is a radical thing. To care for the other is radical. And that is an action, an inherent action. It is what motivates good things to be done."

Filmmaker takeaway: Consider this debate in the context of leading a set. Are you a director with grace? With resolve? Does it have to be one or the other? And how would those leadership tactics impact the experience of your crew—and in turn, the quality of your film?

Is progress most effectively achieved with compassion or indignation?

The room was firmly decided on this one: almost no one stood on the side of righteous indignation. 

Except Bernal. "I'm actually here right in the middle," he said. "I think that, in a way, compassionate empathy is something that I carry, or I'm always in the process of, but the indignation is the line that you draw or the point of refusal."

Giridharadas agreed and expanded on that concept. "First of all," he started, "I think that these two things, unlike some of the others, are actually wonderful collaborators. And when I think about history and the story of progress, I think either of these engines on its own would crash the plane but I think together, [they work]."

He continued, "There's a kind of cyclical nature and at most normal moments [compassionate empathy] is healthy; you don't have a society if you don't have compassionate empathy at some measure. But you get to a moment where something needs to be shaken up, some people need to be dislodged from a position of power. And you need that [righteous indignation]." 

Filmmaker takeaway: If your film is trying to impart a message of some kind, through which method are you conveying it? Considering the cultural context of your story and ask: Is it time to shake things up?     

You can stream the full panel here.

Your Comment

18 Comments

The irony is thick. Here's the problem. Liberals are completely shut-off from opposing ideas. I've never met a liberal who could accurately express the conservative point of view. They always, always mis-characterize the opposite position. Their arguments are, without exception, straw-man arguments, and never seek to actually understand. Hollywood is a bubble. A poorly educated bubble. If you have a strongly conservative message and try to get accepted at Sundance, good luck to you. This whole panel was probably one of the most ironic event ever staged by human beings.

January 31, 2017 at 11:42AM

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Hey Mike, could you give us some examples of stories with a "strongly conservative message" that would find it difficult to be accepted to Sundance on political grounds? I'm curious to know what sort of things we're missing out on.

January 31, 2017 at 12:55PM

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matthew david wilder
Director/Cameraman/Editor/Colorist
245

Mike, what you discribe are radicals. If you mix that up then you are very much in danger of misunderstanding liberals yourself.

Here in Berlin, many of us actually feel that the hollywood mainstream is still promoting many conservative ideas, i guess its a matter of perspective.

The fact that you think that conservative views are discriminated in hollywood is surprising to me, but then, i am not sure what you mean when writing "strongly conservative".

January 31, 2017 at 1:09PM

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Daniel
just a filmmaker
46

All Mike's replies on NF are incoherent tinfoil hat ramblings about Hollywood being uneducated and "liberals" being dumb, regardless of the post topic. I suggest nobody engage this complete and utter fuckwit.

January 31, 2017 at 1:52PM

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LJ
441

I don't think we have a choice at this point, LJ. Four years ago I would have agreed with you, now we don't have the luxury to pretend that guys like Mike don't exist.

So, Mike, please: what sort of stories would you like to see told?

January 31, 2017 at 2:09PM, Edited January 31, 2:09PM

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matthew david wilder
Director/Cameraman/Editor/Colorist
245

Excuse me, are you trying to paint conservatives as the side that's willing to compromise and negotiate? Because your whole party spent the last 8 years making sure Obama couldn't get meaningful legislation passed, and the whole world saw it. You seem to be jumping to an aggro deffense by attacking liberals when absolutely no conservative individual or idea has been named or contested in the piece. Your comment is, indeed, a great example of projection.

February 1, 2017 at 10:50PM

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Luan Oliveira
film student in Rio
190

Please dear sweet Jesus when will we see the end of the SJW onslaught in filmmaking? Can we just make good shit for its own sake? Without this on-the-nose, insufferably preachy, didactic, condescending horseshit thrown in? Someone? Anyone.

January 31, 2017 at 3:19PM, Edited January 31, 3:21PM

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Ladri di biciclette, Battleship Potemkin, Apocalypse Now, Dr. Strangelove, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Les Quatre cents coups, Battle of Algiers, The Grapes of Wrath, Paths of Glory I mean do I really need to keep going here to make the point that 'good shit' is often a leftist-thinking-man's sorta shit??? Someone. Anyone. Please watch a goddamn classic film.

January 31, 2017 at 4:20PM

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matthew david wilder
Director/Cameraman/Editor/Colorist
245

Yes. And ice cream is delicious. But every now and then I'd like SOMETHING ELSE, literally ANYTHING ELSE, thanks very much. Or are you saying there's never been a good film made that didn't push politics? Because I'd be fascinated to hear you defend that one, just breathless. Go ahead.

February 1, 2017 at 5:07PM, Edited February 1, 5:09PM

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I think you're not looking hard enough. Either that or you should start making your own apolitical movies. Good luck with that. The piece has said it: art is about the human experience, and the human experience is shaped by politics. The latter's influence will be in the first no matter what. And remember: abstaining from political positions is a political position. Indifference is not without consequence. Also, I wonder if you'd feel the same if the politics being "pushed" was more aligned with the politics you side with.

February 1, 2017 at 10:54PM, Edited February 1, 11:00PM

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Luan Oliveira
film student in Rio
190

Luan - the politics being pushed are usually exactly aligned with mine. But nobody likes being preached at. And making a movie specifically to push politics is very different from making a movie for its own sake, which happens to be part of a politically influenced culture. That is the critical distinction that you seem to miss (you seem in good company on this thread).

February 4, 2017 at 9:25AM

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Side-stepping your remark that the seminal films in history are "ice-cream"...jesus man we are really on different pages here aren't we...

Let's try to shore up this divide a bit.

John, I spent four years of my life in theory driven film school where we considered everything made, EVERYTHING MADE, to be a social, cultural and political text. From reality television shows like The Simple Life and Big Brother to even the most mind-numbing of summer blockbusters like the Avengers or Jack Reacher films (things I would consider closer to the "ice-cream" of the American film cannon) - evrything can and probably should be interpreted through a social, cultural or political lens. If you aren't

Here's the reason: whether you like it or not, everything is political. A trip to the grocery store is an exercise in your democratic right to vote. Which company's employment policies do you support? Will you endorse Nestle's long history of human rights abuses throughout West Africa, or will you choose Hershey's? (the answer should be neither. Both use child laborers)

And at this point, not being aware of something isn't an excuse. As a top politician recently said of the Iraq War, if you said it wasn't about the oil you were either in on the con, or you were being conned. It's one of the two.

So you see from my point, John, I think it's less upon me to defend the notion that all films are political than for you to name one that isn't.

And I'd be very careful with that one, if I were you, I've spent a lot of time reading wayyyyy too deep into films and stories in general.

But honestly, this is my major problem with your perspective: it's just kind of boring. Why would you want to go through life thinking that everything is exactly what it claims to be? I see that as adorable, almost a childlike sense of innocence, the thought that a can of tuna magically appears on the shelf is a wonderful thought. But of course we know that isn't true, even if we know nothing about the particulars of the fishing industry we are aware of its presence.

We're filmmakers, not fisherman, and the industry behind filmmaking is MASSIVE. There are so many people involved in the process that I would sincerely hope they are motivated to wake up in the morning to create something slightly more than just "ice-cream". Shit, even people who create ice-cream want to create more than just ice-cream!

http://www.uwishunu.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/ice_cream_more.jpg

February 2, 2017 at 9:55AM

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matthew david wilder
Director/Cameraman/Editor/Colorist
245

If you can't see the difference between the political force of The Avengers and, say, Hidden Figures, then I'm horrified to imagine what else film school (or a hilariously and obviously inflated ego) has stolen from you. That, and I pray the pages we're on stay as far apart as possible. Saying EVERYTHING is about politics is about as useful as saying "everything is about history" when a friend tires of the history channel. This kind of statement is exactly what daniel dennett calls a deepity: true in an entirely trivial sense, and meaningless in the relevant sense. As for your desire to look for the hidden meaning in everyday things....deep, bro. We boring, ordinary folk can only gape. Meanwhile, I think I'll go watch a thriller.

February 3, 2017 at 6:23PM

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Hey don't be discouraged, Johnny, there's plenty of room in the theater for mouth-breathers! Don't know what you're doing in a filmmaking forum, though. This heres for thinkin' folk.

If you don't want to accept the consequences of your everyday choices off the film set, fine. Do what you want. But on set, buddy, you represent more than just your outmoded set of opinions and standards: you're making content that will shape the worldview of every single person who sits down in front of it. Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, there are people in the theater on either side of you watching that thriller and thinking to themselves "Yes! That is exactly the sort of high-intensity, kick-ass-take-no-prisoners-from-them-damn-foreigners Liam Neeson styled mentality we need in the White House leading this country".

And those people, John, deserve to have more thoughtful minds working behind the camera telling stories in interesting, sure, but also RESPECTFUL ways.

We can learn a lot from film, or we can learn nothing at all.

And lastly, bro, if you're tired of what you see out there, stop complaining about it online and go make something different.

February 4, 2017 at 1:17PM, Edited February 4, 1:39PM

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matthew david wilder
Director/Cameraman/Editor/Colorist
245

You know what's equal parts scary and sad? You had to EDIT that last reply.

I was gonna ignore it, but I couldn't resist. How often do you get to say literally anything and sound brilliant by comparison? I do appreciate it.

Not only that, but with all your talk of the peasants sitting in theaters sucking the intellectual teat of their betters, you manage--and this is an accomplishment, believe me--to make even ME look humble. I didn't mean to spend this whole reply sucking you off, but I have to thank you again.

You're a pleasure to speak with, if only because I come away looking witty, collected, thoughtful and even demure. I suppose that's the main thrust of this reply: thanks.

February 15, 2017 at 5:29PM

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One thought: I believe these are times in which every external stimulus seems to be aimed at dividing us. In every which place you look there seems to be some way of thinking being propagated that divides people instead of uniting them. Empathy is lacking. Nobody's into sitting and talking to each other anymore. Any difference of opinion is enough to label your neighbor your enemy, and to try to shut them down.
In times like these, unity is disruption. Being graceful enough to stand and promise not to perpetuate these cycles, is resolve.
Insanity remains the expectation of different results without a change of method.

February 1, 2017 at 10:58PM

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Luan Oliveira
film student in Rio
190

Lets make a film about the strongly conservative Mike and his radical left brother Ike.
Both struggle to find a place in a world they feel rejects them.
Will they overcome their differences and save their inherited family business from bankruptcy?
:D

February 2, 2017 at 5:54AM, Edited February 2, 5:54AM

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Daniel
just a filmmaker
46

February 5, 2017 at 12:47PM

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