NEW YORK (A.W.)—What makes a film “socially relevant”? Actress and filmmaker Nora Armani has defined social relevance as a film’s ability to stimulate, uplift, and enlighten its audience, leaving it with something to ponder long after the theater lights have come back up. For Armani, Hollywood’s fixation on blockbuster violence and what she refers to as its “violent forms of filmmaking, communication, and marketing” signals the urgent need for a change in the way the film industry manages itself.
Enter the “Rated SR—Socially Relevant Film Festival New York,” which was founded by Armani and is currently being organized by Armani as Founding Artistic Director and a team of New York city-based collaborators such as Laurence Hoffmann as Director of Programming and Aude Lambert, Director of Partnerships and Marketing. The Rated SR team shares Armani’s vision of socially relevant films, explaining they should mark a return to human interest stories and thematic elements that are social in nature, and make people more aware and better informed about the world around them.
The festival will take place in New York City, at the Quad Cinema in Greenwich Village from March 14-20, 2014. The selection will comprise a 12-film competition for the Grand Prize, other spotlighted special film screenings with panels of invited guests, red carpet receptions, and Q&A sessions with invited filmmakers will round up the program.
Film submissions are being accepted in three categories: feature films, documentaries, and shorts and the final submissions deadline is Dec. 30.
The Grand Prize, a week-long release for the winning feature film at the Quad Cinema under the Quadflix Select program, will grant the filmmaker a run and 100% of the box office. Another documentary prize offered by Cinema Libre Studio of Los Angeles, is awarded to a winning documentary for a DVD – VOD release, while other prizes include awards for films dealing with particular issues. One award given by Armani herself is in commemoration of her cousin Vanya Exerjian’s memory as a victim of violence.
A special trophy designed and donated by Michael Aram will be given to a personality for socially relevant work in film.
The festival has already attracted multiple partners. Dailymotion, the 31st most visited website in the word is an official media partner, where the festival’s dedicated page has to date 37 000 visits. Other partners are the School of Visual Arts Social Documentary Department, The French Embassy in New York Media division, UniFrance Films International, Cineuropa, The FIAF Alliance Française, New York Foundation for the Arts, and talks are underway with a number of other media and organizational partners, including the Paris Film Festival in France.
The Rated SR Film Festival’s organizers are working to secure grants and corporate and media partners who are being offered excellent exposure through the already secured Media partnerships. Sponsorships are still available: www.ratedsrfilms.org.
Born in Egypt to Armenian parents, Armani grew up speaking Armenian, Arabic, English, and French, to which she later added Italian and Russian. She studied sociology and English at the American University in Cairo before going on to obtain her master’s in sociology at the London School of Economics. Her career has included acting, film production, script writing, film festival organization, film series curating, and writing about film. All of this experience is now coming together as Armani unveils the festival, planned for March 2014.
Armani is quick to point out that her aim is not simply to criticize, but to offer an alternative, and she is not the only one voicing doubts about the film industry lately. Steven Spielberg garnered media attention when he was recently quoted in The Hollywood Reporter as having predicted that there will soon be “an implosion—or a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.” The mega-budget movies Spielberg refers to often cost hundreds of millions of dollars to make, and rarely make those colossal costs back at the box office. Products of this model of filmmaking, aside from being economically unsustainable, tend not to appeal to society’s better nature.
Armani finds particular fault with the portrayal of violence in the movies. She argues that the prevalence of guns in movies, television, and the media are contributing to the worryingly high rate of gun violence in the U.S. in recent decades. She decries the “normalization and banalization” of violence, whereby violence ceases to shock us. Reaching the threshold of numbness that, many argue, American society has already crossed has dangerous implications. The most frequently cited example of this phenomenon is the 2012 mass shooting of young schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Even the massacre of scores of young children seemingly prompted no meaningful change in U.S. gun control laws—on the contrary, gun sales in Newtown have surged.
Armani argues that some of the blame for this incomprehensible indifference can be laid at Hollywood’s door. Society has been subjected to an “oversaturation” of sensationalized violence, wherein even the depiction of violence has become violent in its own way. “We can’t just tell people things anymore,” Armani says, pointing out that even traditional news sources sensationalize violence in a way that comes chillingly close to glorification. One need look no further than the Rolling Stone’s cover photo featuring a glamour shot of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston bomber, for support of Armani’s position.
Violence and social relevance are not, of course, mutually exclusive. Armani cautions that violence, when it must be portrayed, should be handled responsibly and not be the theme of a work. Violence, if it is relevant to the work, should be depicted without sensationalism. Many vices, in addition to violence, are glamorized in films (“Pretty Woman” is a prime example). Armani worries that cavalier and dishonest portrayals of violence and crime have a negative influence on society and its appreciation of the gravity of these problems in reality. Examples Armani gives of successful socially relevant films include movies such as “Silver Linings Playbook”, “The Help,” “The Butler,” and “Dallas Buyers Club”, among many. Socially relevant films, Armani explains, should manage to be entertaining while also having excellent production values, such as a film’s sound, lighting, image, and acting quality.
Many prominent actors have recently spoken out against Hollywood violence. Jim Carrey criticized the amount of violence portrayed in the 2013 movie “Kick-Ass 2,” in which he played a lead role; in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, he refused to promote it. According to a January 2013 article in the Guardian, “Oscar-winning actor Dustin Hoffmann has dismissed the depiction of gun violence in Hollywood as ‘fraudulent’ and claimed that studios actively discriminate against actors who refuse to carry firearms onscreen.”
Armani says that it is not only actors who find themselves uncomfortable with Hollywood’s ceaseless, pervasive violence. “Mothers don’t know what to show their kids anymore,” she explains. Beyond the violence parents may not want their children exposed to, there is the additional issue of name-calling and put-downs that have become a mainstay of movies marketed at children. “The entertainment industry needs to reduce its visual ‘carbon’ footprint and think of its legacy,” Armani says—and now more than ever. The 21st century has so far distinguished itself as the age of screens, as people are constantly in what she calls “the visual world” and images are so much more readily accessible than they were in past decades.
Socially relevant films do appear to be catching on. One great example is the movie “The Butler” that when it opened it topped the charts with $25 million from 2,933 theaters in its first frame, “wipe[-ing] the floor with ‘Kick-Ass 2,’” as CNN put it.
This may indeed be the moment for the socially relevant film movement, as conscientious consumerism is on the rise in many other industries. People are now much more aware of the consequences of the ways in which they spend their money, and are paying more attention to the ways in which their food, clothing, and even diamonds are sourced. Even large corporations feel pressure to conduct their business in more socially responsible ways, as corporations who do not can quickly earn a bad name via the use of internet petitions or other advocacy tools.
In addition to the social forces working in favor of socially relevant films, there are clear economic incentives as well. “Human interest stories,” Armani says, do not require the staggering budgets of blockbuster films. The blockbuster film budget model is increasingly being seen as unsustainable, and this makes socially relevant films an attractive alternative.
For Armani, the issue of violence is a personal as well as an academic one. Ten years ago, her cousin Vanya Exerjian was stabbed to death, along with her uncle Jack Exerjian, in a religiously motivated hate crime in Egypt. Beyond the incomprehensible savagery of the crime, committed in front of numerous bystanders, the killing of her female cousin raised the broader issue of violence against women. Armani herself experienced a significant backlash when she spoke out against the problem of domestic violence in Armenia at an AIWA conference in London in the early1990’s. The violence, Armani argues, does not simply come out of thin air. It is fueled by the violent images that people are continually bombarded with, images that equate violence with power and glamor. Perhaps, as Armani argues, a return to human-interest stories will help people to recognize the humanity in one another.
More information about the festival, including how to submit, volunteer, donate, support, or otherwise be involved, can be found by visiting http://www.ratedsrfilms.org