March 20, 2020

‘The Film’ As Champion of Social Consciousness

By Tam Fiofori






There are many factors, some age-old, others more recent, that have firmly entrenched the medium of film as the most potent medium that affects and alters social consciousness.

To begin with, we are now in the age of infotainment, where information and entertainment have become inseparable; an age in which information is deliberately coated with entertainment as a sweetener, like a sugar pill, to make it more palatable and acceptable.

Literarily,  in  every  minute  of  one’s  life  every day, particularly in  the urban environment,  one is constantly bombarded  by streams of  information;  news,  instructions, directions,  proposals, suggestions,  and offers  from  the radio, television, newspapers,  books, pamphlets, street signs, road signs, public address systems, billboards  and mobile cell phones.

How to absorb this unrelenting daily bombardment of information and oblique instructions; filter it, and decode it to ascertain what is essential, relevant and needed in one’s social consciousness, is a tedious process that has over the years, been extensively and diligently  researched into by communication experts and professionals.

It is the two most critical purveyors of communication; in terms of volume and desired purpose; the government and branches of the private sector such as advertisers and social service providers, that obviously, are most interested in identifying and adopting the most effective and efficient mode and medium of communication.

Their ultimate goal is to reach millions of people as possible with their information and message as cost-effectively as possible and, to ensure that the information and its message make a positive and permanent impact on the consciousness of the target audience. They are also concerned about immediacy; how quickly and effortlessly the information/message can be conveyed and received.

It’s no surprise then, that the various media through which information and messages are relayed and passed on have been continuously technologically improved and streamlined for better efficiency, convenience and comfort. And to achieve this, technologies and platforms have been merged whilst not entirely discarding existing and old formats.  

Birth Of A Nation by Griffith was the first deliberate film that ingrained the idea of racism, the superiority of the white man and the comic buffoonery of the black man in the social consciousness of American movie-goers.

So, one now has the options of reading a book or newspaper as a physical hardcopy or online as a softcopy on a personal computer or, on-the-go on a mobile cell phone. And you have the option of also using and enjoying both hardcopy and softcopy versions. And advertisers, quite wisely, have also migrated from hardcopy newspapers to online formats. In a sense you can now no longer run away from these new onslaughts of information and messages reaching you unsolicited, daily, from various sources!

The same options and choices apply to radio, music and film.  You now have the option of listening to your radio programmes on a radio set or on your mobile cell phone, or on both. The same applies to music which you can listen to on fixed turntables or on your mobile cell phone, or on both.  You can also now go to a cinema house to watch a film or more conveniently on your mobile cell phone and, again on both. Ditto for television programmes which you can watch on a fixed television set or on a mobile cell phone or both.

“the medium of film has proven to be the most convenient,
subtle and direct way to reach social consciousness at a mass level”

Predictably, the advertisers have moved with the trend and, as you listen to the radio, or watch your television programmes and films on your mobile devices, they are also prominently and aggressively there to catch your ear or arrest your eyes to sell their products and services. There is no escape from these persistent persuaders.

All these media scenarios are now possible thanks to the advent of the internet and software applications. Thus information and message dissemination have become much faster, more expansive and available on multiple platforms. Also a technological state of linkage and merging has been seamlessly achieved whereby multiple forms of media can be transmitted and received on the same single platform.  In a sense the whole world can now be brought to you instantaneously on a single platform, but at the peril of your consciousness!

In the lead-up to today’s internet connectivity for the projection of multiple forms of media to the same platform, there had been very remarkable innovations in information and message transmission. The most remarkable and game-changing innovation has been satellite transmission which made it possible to virtually instantly transmit radio and television programmes and events to entirely the whole world. As such, a world cup football match or the inauguration of a world political leader or, coronation of a monarch, can simultaneously be listened to and watched in real time, by billions of listeners and viewers across the entire world! This is the modern-day magic technology has brought to information and message dissemination.  

Over time, there has also been some magic at work in packaging the content of information and messages as well as the creative and technical modalities of transmitting and projecting their content.  Some of the results have been that content can be packaged and projected deliberately to be ‘mind-benders’ in that they can permanently alter perceptions and attitudes.  It is within such realms, employing calculated methodologies, that information and messages can effectively be used by governments to disseminate propaganda and slanted half-truths.

Advertisers are dubbed hidden persuaders when they deliberately employ tactics and relay techniques that target the subconscious to subtlety and deeply embed information and the messages within them. One such technique, which theoretically is banned, is the use of successive zoom ins and outs on an image to register it on the subconscious/mind. Thus, media formats can use trick techniques, such as slow motion effects in film to register an impression on the consciousness

Without doubt, based on its character which is a combination of sight and sound, the medium of film has proven to be the most convenient, subtle and direct way to reach social consciousness at a mass level. Film has all the potent ingredients of communication which when properly and expertly  mixed, come up with a very attractive product  that can stir immediate emotions by simultaneously appealing to the senses of sight and hearing and, in turn registering an acceptable impression on one’s consciousness.

The added beauty of film as a medium of communication is that each of its two major components can be individually manipulated for desired effects without tampering with its format as such. This technical creative aspect of the film format lends limitless licence to manipulate visual images and sound content for desired purposes. In addition, in film, sound is a combination of dialogue; that is words and, music; which can separately be treated!

The power of film as a medium and tool for communication; paradoxically, as a medium of deception or even illusion, was beclouded from the very beginning  by the perception that film was about and, just for entertainment. The first films; movies or motion pictures as they were called, were celluloid strips of films showing slapstick featuring comedians performing and generally fooling around.

People were naturally curious and fascinated by this novelty of moving pictures and flocked to the cinema houses to watch these movies and, were amused by the antics and tomfoolery of these slapstick actor-comedians, laughed at them and were entertained. They had fun and the association of film solely with entertainment took root in social consciousness. This was in the era of silent films. Soon film began to shape and influence entertainment with the advent of talking films in which the voices of actors and actresses were heard in the films.

Film from the very beginning was the medium that provided the most entertainment; albeit in a controlled environment at all times of the day and all year round, And entertainment was and is a social requisite for all societies and communities all over the world. Entertainment is very vital for the well-being of human beings. It eases stress, induces laughter and precipitates a mood of fun, happiness and joy; however euphoric or temporary. People generally never get tired of entertainment and, always crave for more!

It would seem that film makers and the movie industry were the pioneers in seeing how the medium riding on the waves of its huge success as an entertainment provider could also become an acceptable avenue to impact social consciousness on a large scale, To prepare film for its futuristic role as a major social consciousness influencer large scale technical and creative innovations were introduced to make film more attractive as entertainment.

There was improvement in film stock and cinematography as well as the introduction of technicolour; making the images more vibrant and alive  and, the screening on panoramic  screens now gave films a larger than life sensation especially epics. Special specifically composed soundtracks gave films unique signatures and some soundtracks actually became hits on music charts worldwide. With masterfully crated scripts talking films were now primed to make their indelible incursions into mass social consciousness.

Birth Of A Nation by Griffith was the first deliberate film that ingrained the idea of racism, the superiority of the white man and the comic buffoonery of the black man in the social consciousness of American movie-goers.  Seven decades after Hollywood released this blockbuster film, racism as propagated in this film has come to stay and frequently rears its ugly head with impunity in America in the 21st century.

Given its antecedence, its continued popularity and astronomical box-office financial success, it is no surprise that the medium of film while seemingly providing ‘harmless’ entertainment , has continued to shape and direct the social consciousness of Americans in particular in all spheres of life.  Films in the various genres of comedy, musical, adventure, action and love  also impact on social consciousness.  

Such is the power and influence of film on social consciousness that it can safely be deduced that the lifestyle of Americans over time has been fashioned by films. Americans and indeed the western world has been groomed by what they have watched in films; how to furnish and decorate their homes, how to eat, how to party and have fun and, the general norms of social interaction. On the other hand, the social consciousness and lifestyle of Black Americans, because they’ve not had much access to film production until quite recently have been influenced by vinyl; that is, what they hear on recordings by black musicians.

It is no wonder then that both the film and music industries are huge financial juggernauts in America. Hollywood-film’s offering as entertainment and its accompanying influence on social consciousness spread well beyond the shores of America to create an American lifestyle complete with coca-cola, bubble gum swagger and slangs to establish and try to establish an American-brand global western culture. Americanese  became the hip in-thing global culture and lifestyle.

The French resisted this cultural imperialism with renewed vigour and creative slants in their own film industry; though ironically some of the French avant garde films used Black American music-jazz, as their sound tracks. Sociologists however argue  that Hollywood-American films, particularly western shoot-em-ups, modern macho gun violence blood-drenched action films have had a very negative influence on global social consciousness. Some even attribute the current global spate of excessive violence and even terrorism as having their root influences from this genre of American action films!

The influence of foreign western-cum-American films, Chinese kung fo films and Indian love-musical-films on the social consciousness of Nigerians, for more than half-a-century, before the advent of local home-made Nollywood films, makes for interesting socio-political observations. And how Nollywood films themselves have influenced the social consciousness of Nigerians is another very interesting chapter.

The colonial masters exploited the power and influence of film as a weapon of governance. Well aware that its novelty itself was enough to sell it wholly as entertainment to the colonised Nigerians, the content and images of the films made by the colonial office; which were shown by means of travelling vehicular mobile cinema, had a specific ultimate purpose.

This was to continuously embed in the social consciousness of Nigerians, the firm political message and reality, that the British were in charge and ruling Nigeria as their colony. It was also a demonstration that their might was right and would brook no opposition ‘from the natives!’

It is instructive that after independence the various Nigerian regional and state governments maintained these fleets of travelling mobile cinemas specifically for the same purpose of establishing their authority; this time in the consciousness of fellow Nigerians.

By the forties into the fifties cinema houses were set up in the big towns and cities in Nigeria, and their fare was American Hollywood films; cowboy-westerns, musicals, adventure and war films. The boisterous crowds lapped it up, it was novel entertainment and fun to them. Ironically they were oblivious to the racism in the films that portrayed the Red Indians/indigenous Americans as the bad guys. If anything the crowds associated with the good white cowboys.

As from the seventies through to the eighties Hong Kong-Chinese kung fu films were the fare in  Nigerian cinema houses across the country, after which Indian Bollywood romantic love-musicals took over. Nigerian cinema-going audiences viewed these foreign films as sheer entertainment and plain fun. A  dismissible minority probably imagined themselves as cowboys  or supreme kung fu fighters a la Bruce Lee. It was action’ that impressed their social consciousness.

The advent of a home=grown Nigerian film industry Nollywood and, the continuous astronomical proliferation of Nollywood films [the second largest global film industry in terms of volume] as home videos and now in cinema houses has had a very huge impact on social consciousness in Nigeria and the black Diaspora.

Nollywood is an enigma, a wonder and a work-in-progress that has been overwhelmingly and patriotically embraced by Nigerians. Its impact on social consciousness has been enormous because it mostly depicts a raw slice of life-the way we are. Fetish and churches compete as social problem solvers, family and community intrigues over money and power, occasional peeps into historical epics and modern socio-political commentary on governance and events. And, some comedy are Nollywood’s offerings to national social consciousness.

The jury is still out as to whether Nollywood  is responsible for moral permissiveness, the frightening quest for wealth by any means and at all cost, senseless violence, kidnapping and other vices and crimes that have escalated in Nigeria!

Marshall McLuham in his seminal 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, coined the phrase “the medium is the message,” meaning that the nature of a medium-the channel through which a message is transmitted is more important than the meaning or content of the message. The content of the medium is a message than can be easily grasped, he pointed out; going further to say that, the character of the medium is another message which can easily be overlooked.

McLuham further states that, the content of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium. The medium, he asserts, affects the society in which it plays a role by the content delivered over the medium, but also the characteristic of the medium itself. The medium is not neutral, he concludes.

Film as a medium, superficially appears to be just a simple mere medium  of and, for entertainment.  However, its visual and aural contents and the messages embedded in them are very powerful ‘weapons’ aimed at the social consciousness for specific purposes.

Hence, film is used as advertising clips, as television news clips, documentaries, tv-films and as documentary and feature films in cinema houses and online. Be aware that every time you watch a film your social consciousness is always being awakened!

TAM FIOFORI  c Sept, 2019.

Tam Fiofori is an award-winning filmmaker who specialises in the genre of documentaries. A pioneer Nigerian indigenous independent filmmaker he produced his first celluloid film in May 1974. He has been a Consultant to NTA Network and has taught at the National Film Institute, Jos. His films have been exhibited in numerous film festivals in Nigeria and internationally. He is a member of the IREP HALL OF FAME for his contributions to the development of documentary films in Nigeria.

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