Films, like every kind of art, are often made purely for cinema’s sake – but sometimes they aren’t. Some of the most iconic recent films have actually played a major role in inspiring rights’ movements and protests around the world.
Ten Years, recipient of Hong Kong’s best film award on 3 April 2016, is just one of the latest examples of how cinema can side up with rights: films have often given protests momentum and a cultural reference.
Sometimes, directors have spoken out publicly in favour of protests; other times the films themselves have documented political abuses. In other cases, protesters and activists have given a film a new life, turning it into an icon for their protests on social media even against the directors’ original ideas.
Here are a few recent cases of popular films that have become symbols of rights’ movements around the world:
On 3 April, Ten Years was voted best film at the Hong Kong film awards, one of China’s most important film festivals – but most Chinese don’t know that, as the film is severely censored in mainland China.
Directed by Chow Kwun-Wai with a $64,500 budget, Ten Years is a “political horror” set in a dystopian 2025 Hong Kong. In the five short stories told in the film, Chow Kwun-Wai warns against the effects that ten years of Beijing’s influence would have on Hong Kong: The erosion of human rights, the destruction of local culture and heavy censorship.
According to the South China Morning Post, Ten Years was not intended to be a political film, but the political content is explosive to the extent that some critics have dubbed it “the occupy central of cinema”.
China Digital Times reports that both the film and the awards ceremony are banned in China. On Sina Weibo, China’s leading social network, the searches “Ten Years + Film Awards” (十年＋金像) and “Ten Years + film” (十年＋电影) are blocked from results.
Winner of a 2015 Oscar, Birdman’s plot is not about rights or protests: The film told the story of a popular actor’s struggles years after his success impersonating a superhero.
But Mexican director’s Alejandro González Iñárritu’s acceptance speech turned it into the symbol of a protest against Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.
After asking for a respect and dignity for Mexican immigrants in the USA, Iñárritu said in his speech: “I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve.”
The speech came after the Mexican government declared the death of 43 students who went missing while organising a protest.
Iñárritu’s speech made Twitter erupt against Peña Nieto’s government under the hashtag #ElGobiernoQueMerecemos, “the government we deserve”.
Twitter user Guillermo Padilla said, “Now we are only missing a good ‘director’ in this country” – a play on words since “director” means both director and leader in Spanish.
— Guillermo Padilla (@_memopadilla) February 23, 2015
In a photo, Birdman took the place of the Angel of Independence’s statue, symbol of Mexico City.
EL NUEVO ANGEL… pic.twitter.com/Pa8khaWC7k
— Antonio Moreno (@tonomoreno_w) February 23, 2015
One user took it a step further, posting a “graphic description” of the effects of Iñárritu’s speech on the president.
— kofres (@kofres) February 23, 2015
The sci-fi blockbuster Hunger Games took a life of its own in Thailand, where student demonstrators turned the protagonist’s salute into a symbol of rebellion against the ruling junta.
In the film, set in a heavily oppressed country where every year young people are forced to fight to death in a nationally televised contest, protagonist Katniss Everdeen defies the central government and inspires a rebellion against totalitarian rule. Her three-finger salute becomes the symbol of the protest.
In Thailand, students started to use the three-finger salute as a symbol of rebellion after the military government took power with a coup on 22 May 2014 and clamped down on all forms of protest, censored the country’s news media, limited the right to public assembly and arrested critics and opponents. According to The New York Times, hundreds of academics, journalists and activists have been detained for up to a month.
The Guardian reported that social activist Sombat Boonngam-anong wrote on Facebook: “Raising three fingers has become a symbol in calling for fundamental political rights.”
Since then, using the salute in public in groups of more than five people has been prohibited through martial law.
V for Vendetta holds a special place among films about freedom of speech. In 2005, it was incredibly successful bringing the themes freedom of speech and rebellion against tyranny into the mainstream media debate.
In the film, a freedom fighter plots to overthrow the tyranny ruling on Britain in a dystopian future. The mask he always wears has the features of Guy Fawkes, an English Catholic who attempted to blow up the parliament on 5 November 1605.
The mask has since become an icon. According to The Economist, the mask has become a regular feature of many protests. Among others, it has been adopted by the Occupy movement and Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.
David Lloyd, author of the graphic novel on which the film is based, has called the mask a “convenient placard to use in protest against tyranny … It seems quite unique, an icon of popular culture being used this way.”
In 2015, the film historical drama Suffragette inspired a protest against the government’s cuts to women services in Britain.
The film shows the struggle for women’s rights that took place in the beginning of the 20th century, when Emmeline Pankhurst led an all-women fight to gain the right to vote.
Before the movie premiere in London’s Leicester Square, activists from the feminist group Sister Uncut broke away from the main crowd, and laid down on the red carpet.
According to The Independent, they chanted “It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” and held signs reading “Dead women can’t vote” and “2 women killed every week” to draw attention to domestic violence and cuts to women’s services.
One protester told The Independent: “We’re the modern suffragettes and domestic violence cuts are demonstrating that little has changed for us 97 years later.”