Producer and policy-maker Lord Puttnam called for a stronger political voice from film-makers, when he delivered the keynote at last week’s Edinburgh International Film Festival

I’ve always believed that cinema has a significant political role to play during moments of crisis’, such as those we are living through.

For at its best, cinema retains a remarkable ability to speak to people of every age, from every background, and in ways with which almost every other form of popular culture struggles to compete.

This is why the economics of the film industry, the raw numbers, do not begin to describe the medium’s broader impact. In fact, it’s largely thanks to festivals such as this that the counter-argument gets any traction at all.

As will once again become clear this week, within the world of cinema there can still be found authentic moral voices; which is why at its best cinema remains capable of that most valuable of all cultural gifts: thought leadership.

I look around at most other forms of popular culture, and the capacity of cinema to deliver this moral vision, to speak with this degree of compassion, to allow space for poets and dreamers becomes ever more striking.

Yet that said, it’s also the case that contemporary cinema remains far too timid about using its ability to positively influence young minds in the way they see and respond to the world.

“We have a duty to ensure our chosen medium is a force for good in an ever more complex world.”

I’m not naive enough to pretend that on its own cinema can cut through, let alone solve significant social or cultural problems. But by illuminating the sometimes very different lives and experiences of others - most particularly those of the young and especially vulnerable - it can help create that vital context of understanding within which the type of change that sometimes looks impossible, begins to look at least possible.

And, as every one of us will have experienced, once you cross that frontier of doubt, trust begins to develop, and before you know it, the unthinkable becomes not only thinkable - but maybe even achievable. If we ever cease to believe that, we will also cease to make movies. Surely, as intelligent and responsible film-makers working in a free society, we have a duty to ensure our chosen medium is a force for good in an ever more complex world.

Just a few weeks ago, we saw the extraordinarily depressing spectacle of two far-right British National Party politicians’ - and I use that phrase very, very loosely - elected to represent the UK in the European Parliament.

Behind their suits and ties lurks something extremely unpleasant; I’d like to think no-one’s deceived about that, but I fear - on the evidence of that election - that at least some voters are. In fact, I sometimes think the greatest danger to democracy is the degree to which it is eroded by stealth.

We desperately need some of our most talented film-makers to find ways to ensure the insidious propaganda of BNP leader Nick Griffin fails to capture impressionable young minds in some of our more vulnerable communities.

This is where brave and committed political cinema could come into its own - helping to both understand what’s happening and ensuring we remain liberal, inclusive and tolerant in our response.

We’ve already seen last week, in Iran, how digital tools such as Twitter can become channels for voices of dissent. It’s crucial that cinema remains responsive to the political climate if it’s not to look increasingly irrelevant to the big challenges of the 21st century.

This is an edited version of the speech, for the full version please click here.


Puttnam on the power of cinema

  • “We must keep faith with the dream of a distinctive cinema that really dares to speak the truth to [those in] power and celebrates the privilege - the freedom - of being able to do so.”
  • “Cinema has historically played a role in enabling people to reimaginethe world at times of crisis - Italian neo-realism after the war, much of the work of the Nouvelle Vague in the 1960s; films like Rome, Open City, The Battle Of Algiers and Le Weekend.”
  • “The film-maker’s most important role is to help explain the ambiguities and complexities of life, and in doing so, create narratives that support or encourage dialogue - leading, in some cases, to the possibility of difficult but acceptable compromises. In a tiny way, it’s what I was trying to do in the films I produced that dealt with factual or historical events, most notably in The Killing Fields, The Mission and Cal, but also in their own ways Chariots Of Fire, The Duellists, and even Local Hero.”