Shifting the Paradigm: Social Entrepreneurs and the Art of Fiction Film

MBA student Natasha Garcha reports on the Skoll World Forum panel, ambulance “Shifting the Paradigm: Social Entrepreneurs and the Art of Fiction Film.

Natasha Garcha

Natasha Garcha

Storytelling must not be peripheral to social movements – it must be at the center of revolutions. Cara Mertes, sale director at Just Films, ampoule begun the session by delving into the art of fiction. Quoting non-fiction author, Peter Matthiessen, who ironically said “(non-fiction is) captive to facts or predetermined forms- it cannot fly,” Cara elucidated how non-fiction can sometimes leave its audience feeling powerless, acting as a disincentive to civic engagement. Fiction, on the contrary, allows us to be embedded in someone else’s reality. Research shows fiction readers are inclined to believe the world is more just than it really is. As someone who spent majority of her childhood in a library devouring novels and grew up to be an irrepressible optimist, this deeply resonated with me! The session introduced us to two revolutionary fiction films, Difret and Under the Same Sun. Both epitomize why there is such great power in the art of storytelling. Movements are built around emotional connections and the immersive experience of fiction film is the perfect medium.

Cara Mertes, John Marks, and Mehret Mandefro in their session "Shifting the Paradigm" at Saïd Business School

Difret has a double-entendre. In its widest use, the word means courage. But in Amharic, it also means “the act of being raped.” The film showcases the story of 14 year Hirut Assefa’s act of defiance against the dominant narrative. Abducted while walking home from school by her 29-year-old would-be husband (as is customary in Ethiopia), in an instance she is robbed of her childhood, her innocence, her freedom. In a desperate attempt to escape and return to the sanctity of her home, she manages to shoot her captor, killing him with his own rifle. Charged with murder, Hirut’s pleas of self-defense fall on deaf ears. Here unfolds the core story of a tenacious struggle against the status quo. Meaza, a human rights lawyer inspired by Hirut’s relentless courage, embarks on an epic legal battle to save the young girl from facing the death penalty. Based on a true story, the cast and crew went through extraordinary lengths to ensure minimal deviation from the real chain of events. During the snippets of the film that we had the privilege of viewing, audible gasps of shock echoed through Seminar Room A – a symbol of the deep impact that fiction films can have on its audience. Having the producer of such a powerful movie with us was a HUGE honor. Mehret Mandefro gave us an inside peek into the making of Difret, emphasizing the utmost importance of authenticity in a movie which hopes to represent the Ethiopian culture, giving its unsung heroes a voice in the world. Difret is not a tale of tragedy, but one of hope. Difret does not seek to demonize Ethiopian men, but to change the social norms around cultural violence by telling a story that does not judge or dismiss. I believe it will act as catalyst for change, making these men think, question and reflect rather than view this as a critique. Mehret also shared the struggles as a filmmaker to remain true to the soul of the story, defending her decision to not cast Halle Berry as the lawyer in a bold attempt to maintain the authenticity of the film at the cost of blocking out mainstream funders. She described how Hollywood is “dying for a revolution” that will challenge these artificial assumptions about the relationship between commerce and art. Mehret eloquently pointed out that disruptive movies require disruptive distribution channels – despite meriting the audience award at Sundance, commercial theatres (especially in the US) were still weary about screening a potentially controversial and un-conventional film. Difret in my opinion is nothing short of a work of art and I hope it is embraced and celebrated across the world.

Under the Same Sun is a movie based “sometime in the near future.” Producer John Marks gave us the pleasure of a candid discussion about his journey to create a movie of how an unexpected alliance develops between an Israeli and a Palestinian who “set out to make money and wind up making peace.” Old antagonisms, new technologies and two hopeful entrepreneurs live ‘under the same sun.’ They unite to develop a solar energy project to bring electricity to Palestine, risking their lives and burying old hostilities. The perils the duo encounter and how they overcome artificial divisions by recognizing the importance of being invested in something that is meaningful, exposes the audience to the crux of how cultures shift. Shot in three different languages, the film in John’s words is “the most scrupulously accurate film” possible which endeavors to fulfill his “über objective” of peacebuilding. In my opinion, by putting hope on the screen Under the Same Sun will help overcome the current cynicism by illustrating how ordinary people can create huge waves of disruption and truly enable shifting the paradigm.