Founder of #bemyamigo initiative, public speaker, and community advocate Jorge Amigo on the societal repercussions of advertising, how municipal geography affects political discourse, and how social movements shift our cultural landscape.
Tracy: Want to begin talking a bit about #bemyamigo - what that was, and how the idea came about?
Jorge: Yes, so back in 2012 I saw an article that popped up on VanMag entitled something like, "Do Vancouver Men Suck?" and I found it fascinating for a number of reasons: not only did it not apply to me, because I myself didn't identify with any of the men described in the article, but it was also fascinating to me that women in this city found men were very immature and childish when it came to courting women or going on dates. But also, I found it really hilarious that the article did not address the other side of the story, which is the way that women normally interact when you do approach them in this city, or want to have a conversation. So the moment I read it I thought to reply to it in jest. I replied to the article by sending mine to Vancouver Magazine - and it turned out that they loved it! So they published it, and within two hours everything blew up - my email, my twitter, facebook - everything. I got around 3000 replies and responses from people. It went viral on top of the Canucks for a couple of days. The day after the article was published, I got invited to a few radio interviews and TV interviews because people wanted to hear about this random dude that was criticizing women in Vancouver [Laughter].
Just to clarify for anyone who hasn't read it, the point was that in your opinion women weren't reacting very positively to advances from a man they didn't personally know?
Yes but it was a comedic article where I was poking fun at the idea that whenever I personally tried to chat with a women on the bus, or a train, or on the beach, or in a park, I usually got this very negative, frightened reaction of someone that feels their privacy was being completely attacked. So I essentially critiqued that and made fun of it a little bit, without trying to offend anyone. Again, it was mostly a comedic article. So when I got invited to talk about it, on the first radio interview is how #BeMyAmigo came about. It was the Bill Good interview on CKNW, and right away I wanted to separate myself from a gender discussion. I didn't want it to be a sexist discussion because I think that kind of topic can easily boil into a very misogynistic chat about women versus men. So I definitely didn't want to get into an argument to fuel the fire of men that feel entitled to women's attention. I was very conscious about not giving into that because I realize that kind of article could lead men to say, "Yeah we're men, so you should talk to me if I'm talking to you." I wanted to avoid that whole idea, so right away from that first interview I said, "No this is not a gender discussion." It's more about discussing Vancouver as a whole, as a society where it's harder to talk to people, where it's not easy to meet strangers, where people are not open to just having casual conversations, and where neighbours don't know each other. I find it a very cold social scene so I wanted to talk about that. And Bill Good was very surprised because he thought it was going to be a juicy radio piece about me criticizing women and then people calling in, and having that discussion. But instead I flipped it and said, "No this is about analyzing what's going on. Is it the weather? Is it social norms? Is it multiculturalism? What it is about this city that makes it particularly hard for people to talk to each other."
I've heard many versions of why that is and it would be interesting to look into more. So the idea behind #bemyamigo is that it attempts to offer an alternative to that isolating behaviour?
Yeah exactly. So I hear this complaint a lot: strangers don't talk here, but people that know each other they sometimes don't even say hello to each other on the street. Bill Good asked me, "So what are you going to do about it?" And I decided, "You know what? I'm going to organize a flash mob. How about next Friday let's show up at Robson Square, and [your listeners can] come meet some strangers. Just come meet some strangers and say Hi. And the flash mob will be called Be My Amigo." - because my last name is Amigo. So I branded it on the fly as he asked the question, "And lets hashtag bemyamigo, lets organize this." So from my twitter handle (that had a lot of attention at the moment because of the article) I tweeted out: "Robson Square. Come Meet Some Strangers #bemyamigo", and around 30 people showed up. It was hilarious. I mean, I wasn't expecting a thousand people, but the fact that 30 random people who heard this interview showed up to meet strangers was, to me, quite incredible. So we all chatted, we talked about socializing in Vancouver and about everyone's ideas on this problem. From that I realized I wanted to make this a periodical event; I wanted this to continue to move forward. So I decided to organize an event series of the same name.
How do public spaces tie into the conversation? Can a city be better designed for social connectivity, and why is it important for a community to be connected?
For a number of reasons. First of all, our number one determinant of social happiness is community connection. Psychologists and social scientists have repeatedly shown that a key way to be happy and feel fulfilled in your life is not money, it's not professional achievement; the number one thing that makes you happy in life is your social network. So the more connected a community is, the more you have all these effects on personal happiness. The other reason why I think this is important is that if people know each other, if people care about each others' stories, we'll live in a much stronger democracy because that increases civic engagement. Again, numerous urbanists, psychological studies, and studies on populations all show that when you care about your neighbourhood - which happens by caring about the people around you (the connection is that when you know the people around you, you care about your neighbourhood.) So when you care about your neighbourhood, you're more willing to participate civically or politically on the issues involving your neighbourhood. So if you're disconnected from your community, if you don't know who lives in your building, if you don't know anyone in your neighbourhood, you're less likely to give a damn about, or care about, who lives there. You're less likely to care about their issues because you don't know their issues - you have never even spoke to them; you've never heard their stories. So it makes you less likely to fight for things that you care about because you don't have this feeling of collectiveness; that you're all sharing a place together that you all have a stake in. So you become atomized and separated.
Your comment that when you know people's stories you become more engaged with their issues (so a collective passion or fight) speaks to social movements, which you are very involved in. Why is involvement in such movements so important, and can you see them actually projecting change in an effective way?
That's a great question. I personally think that the only way social movements can occur--and I mean powerful social movements that really change the conversation about something, that really shift the culture, like the feminist movement, the civil rights movement of the last century, or today the climate movement. The only way for those movements to acquire enough power is if people, again, talk to each other, know each other, and have strong communities. You won't have a hundred thousand people show up at Robson Square to demand something unless those people care. And they won't care if they don't know each other. To me the link between social movements, community connection, and social capital is just automatic. And it's not just me, all the research shows that. Naomi Klein in her latest book This Changes Everything has an entire chapter devoted to the idea of social capital and how that's the only way that big, effective social movements can happen. Through social capital, through building those bonds between each other, and through community. And then inspiring other people into action.
Action doesn't happen in a vacuum; if you have all these people that live by themselves who don't know each other, they can't share their grievances, they can't share their dreams, they can't share ideas for action. Whereas if you have the opposite effect of a very vibrant neighbourhood where everyone discusses things, talks to each other, knows about each other's problems and ideas, well then now there's a probability for that situation to develop into social movements, protests, or specific demands for change that are a lot more effective. Because again, think of what we have standing against that. In a society like ours we have two major forces of change: One is corporate interest. Corporations that are organized by very few people, maybe 300 people at most, or whatever the size of the corporation is, but relative [to the global population] very few people organized around one very singular, simple interest of profit. But their entire livelihoods depend on that interest. So their entire livelihood as an organization depends on that particular law or that particular rule to be changed, right? So corporations and lobby groups are very successful at effecting political change because they're able to employ people where all they do is work on lobbying for that particular change.
And then on the other side, the second force of change is just citizens. And normal citizens like you and I, we don't have the time to devote half of our day to fighting for a specific issue, even though we care deeply about it. We don't have the resources, we're not paid to be activists for an issue, whereas a corporation pays their employees and pays their lobbyists to be activists all the time for one particular issue. So the balance of power there is very, very unfair because you have organizations that are able to spend millions of dollars and resources debating specific issues that don't represent the vast majority of the population. But the vast majority of the population has no ability to represent themselves, because you can't get citizens to skip their work day and their daily responsibilities to go and fight for something or to use that time to organize.
Well said. It's a massive fight and citizens are certainly up against a lot. I'd make note however that Vancouver is good at standing in the name of environmental issues. I know people who at the end of their work day get together to organize, or who are out fighting for something on a Sunday. There are many different groups working against tar sands expansion or tankers routing through our harbour, and they're doing so on top of their studies or their jobs.
So there are two things here. One is, personally, when I moved here I really felt that there was an awareness about environmental issues that didn't exist at least where I'm from, so I think the Vancouver community is hyper aware about and sensitive to environmental issues (without a doubt because there is a connection to nature here so people feel it as a personal thing). But I would challenge you on whether statistically, Vancouver people are organizing more, or protest more, or participate more on environmental issues. Because what I find is that whenever I go to an environmental protest or see an environmental protest, or environmental action, maybe 300 people show up. That's nothing; 2 million people live here. So to me the vast majority of the people are sleeping. So the vast majority of the city doesn't give a damn, doesn't care. And even if they care on Facebook, even if they care vocally, even if everyone's talking about it, no one is actually taking active political stances.
I'm thinking comparative to other activism. For example I used to be part of an anti-war group that, still to this day consistently tries to raise awareness about foreign occupation, how our tax dollars are spent on military recruitment, and that year after year we are complicit in killing thousands of innocent civilians abroad, and other incredibly important issues surrounding war. But the numbers that this issue would bring out in comparison to environmental issues is nauseating. Time after time, maybe 7 or 10 maximum compared to, you know, even your 300.
So with environmental stuff, it feels like more? Yeah that's troubling too. So the last time I bumped into you in a public place of protest I saw you at the Endbridge pipeline protest in the West End--
--which was quite large!
I would say it was tiny.
Really? You mean for the issue at hand..
Exactly. So that would be my argument. I saw you at this protest that everyone said was going to be the biggest environmental protest, and there were, what - 2000 people at most? That's nothing. And on a Saturday? On a sunny, beautiful Saturday in a park by the water, where there were food carts, entertainment, and all these other things, and we only had 2000 people? So the vast majority of the city didn't care to join. You're fighting for this enormous, disruptive, damaging thing that could destroy our ecosystems and our livelihoods, and there was trouble filling one little park. So yeah, it looked like there were some people, but it wasn't packed, it wasn't full, it wasn't like the entire community got together. So I'm not trying to discourage, and I'm not saying that Vancouver doesn't have a strong interest in environmental issues. That particular day showed that we have people like Ben West, the Wilderness Committee, and the people from Dogwood [Initiative] and we had city councillors on the stage that day. So yeah there's a strong impetus to fight for environmental things, we saw it at Burnaby Mountain recently. But I'm saying the numbers of people that are showing up to protests and participating are very low. I don't know precisely what it is, but I'd like to know the data to quantify this in comparison to other cities.
Well if you look at Manhattan and how many people showed up to last year's Climate March..
Yeah about 300,000 people. So that climate march was enormous. If you had the same climate march in Vancouver I'd say you would have a thousand or two thousand people [show up] at best.
You said this city is "sleeping", why do you believe that is so? My focus is obviously on media, and I think celebrities, fashion, and the quest for 'followers' on social media definitely subdue a lot of people. They're ignoring community issues for self indulgences. Also the advertising industry: look who holds the monopoly. Who has the means to pose their message to the vast majority of us?
Yes that certainly. I'll try to avoid the typical comments about why youth or why people are disenfranchised from politics, because that applies across all societies, especially dummied societies like we have in the Western world where there is so much entertainment, and where politics are somehow such a dirty word that people just prefer to focus on more banal things. I've lived in Mexico City, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, and I've been to Ottawa a number of times. And in the case of Vancouver, this is the most apolitical city I've ever lived in. The possibility of having an intellectual political conversation in Vancouver in a coffee shop randomly or overhearing one in a park, compared to in Toronto, Montreal or Ottawa is completely rare. I mean, it's palpable. In Toronto it's not rare to have a conversation about politics, it's not rare to have a nice heated chat in Montreal about something intellectual. But in Vancouver people are hiking or they only care about yoga. Again I'm essentializing it and I'm reducing this culture to a caricature here, but I think with the caricature of Vancouver being of people who want to be healthy and go to the mountains and not worry about life outside of BC, I think might be related to a couple things. A, the fact that this is not a centre of power: this is not a centre of decision making, so no important decisions about anything nationally are made in Vancouver. Decisions about our province happen in Victoria, which is close by, but it's not here. So all those politicians are not here, they're not present, they do not live here. Those people that are making decisions at a provincial level, you never bump into them in a restaurant, you'll never see them at a coffee shop, and you'll never have the chance to hear those conversations because they're not meeting with consultants here. So that's one thing. And then B, the centre of power of this country is Ottawa.
Way on the other side of the country.
Way on the other side. And Toronto is a city that is close to Ottawa where most head-offices are located. Again the intellectual, political, interesting discussions about changing this country have nothing to do with discussions about putting up a bike lane or whatever. I must emphasize, I'm creating a caricature of this city, but I find that not being a centre of power does have an effect on people's connection to politics. I come from Mexico city [which] is the centre of arts, culture, sports, politics, industry - of everything in my country. You go to Mexico city and everything happens there. Every single industry or every single sector, that's their headquarters. It's like Paris - Paris is the centre of the French world; Mexico is similar. So everything is contained within these mega cities, whereas in Canada - and it's not a criticism - but in Canada it's so spread out. Commerce for the most part is based in Toronto, politics is just Ottawa focused, for agriculture you have Saskatchewan, and for oil you have, obviously Alberta.
So it's a very rare conversation in Vancouver to bring up. I even find it in myself. I studied Political Science, and when I lived in Mexico [politics] was the kind of discussion that happened all the time with your friends, regardless of what you studied. It's the type of dinner conversation you have with your family, or when you walk into a room the first thing that you'll chat about is the latest political news. That's the pulse of the country because it feels like it's a matter of life or death. Perhaps here it has to do with the fact that life is so wonderful - so comfortable. And you have so many beautiful, natural distractions that there's no time to worry about the very 'boring' world of politics. But of course that too might seem like a caricature; maybe that's not accurate in terms of what the exact anthropological reasons are, or psychological reasons are, for why people don't care about politics, but there still might be something to say about it. So here's a question for you because I'm fascinated by this as well. Do you think it's because we don't package politics in the same glossy way as we package other things?
I would say the opposite for the US. Look at their massively expensive campaigns that are all about sensationalization: the colours, the sport-like debates, and the psychological imagery, but which rarely touch on the actual issues of policy making. The US has that whole Pepsi party versus Coke party phenomenon. The extreme simplification of their elections into sound bites and finishing lines - who, in effect, is the better actor. (We have something similar in Canada, but more parties.) So it becomes a glossy spending race. Whoever spends more is able to reach a larger audience. I'd like to see this change - maybe have each politician limited to the exact same amount of campaign funding, and the exact same amount of time on TV to discuss their platforms. Of course this all ties into the larger subject of stupefying the masses, which I think is solved nicely by your explanation of civic engagement and knowing your neighbours.
Yeah, so Mexico does that [with campaign limitations]. That's what we do - all parties and elections are funded publicly, there's no private money in Mexican politics so it doesn't affect the electoral process. And then the government makes sure all the TV stations and radio stations set aside certain time slots for political messages before an electoral campaign. And they assign them to everyone. But they do it proportionally, so if you're a party that holds 30% of the vote, you're going to get more air-time than a party that has one percent and is just starting out in politics, so it's an interesting way to do it. But I think my question is more about whether politics is really boring because we're constantly faced by enormous marketing budgets for brands. So you're bombarded by - like you said - things that are very distracting like fashion, entertainment and beauty products: all these industries that are competing to grab your attention. And then you have politics which seems in comparison to be pretty boring, and complicated, and hard to understand. Is this why?
Okay I see. From what I've been researching over the past 5 years, that's exactly it. A dumbfounding amount of money is spent on "grabbing your attention" as you said. It also aligns with your point about community and its effects on our happiness.
I read this paper that was saying that a 'beautiful' face actually lights up the same areas of the brain that heroin and other addictive substances light up - the reward centre of the brain is activated. ("Feel-good" endorphins are released.) The important thing about addiction is that if you isolate people in the way that North America has succeeded in doing, individuals are more inclined to sink into these addiction behaviours - the compulsive overconsumption of things that release endorphins. The less we spend time with people that we trust and feel comfortable around, the more something astonishing happens: dopamine and endorphin receptors actually die off when you're alone too much or don't have those strong, comfortable connections to others. Being alone too often leads to more negative thinking about others, more competitive thoughts toward others, and more desire to seek things that are said to be 'addictive' (again, that light up the reward centre of the brain.) So it's a catch-22. The more isolated and negative one feels, the less they want to be around others, so the more they seek consumption. But the more often they consume, the more they become wired to obtaining those things (money, beauty, narcotics etc,). In the extreme they then see others as simply an obstacle in the way of whatever 'thing' lights up the reward centre of the brain. So we have a corporate culture that feeds on making people feel cut off or competitive, which suites capitalism well because then people are too busy consuming products that light up these reward centres in their brains that aren't being lit up by community and connection. So when you're distracted in that way, you're not focusing on the policies that are hurting you or your neighbours, because you're focused on the instant-gratification of seeing these pretty images, and faces in magazines, or stopping by a clothing store, or the Burger King.
Of course there are so many reasons, but this is just one that's becoming more and more obvious to me, yet at no fault to the Western individual. Society isn't set up like it is in Copenhagen, Bhutan, or Malawi. Even though Malawi is one of the poorest places on earth, people's days are constructed around each other, and you always have a comforting, smiling face right next to you, so they don't feel the obsessive need to seek these 'things'. A perfect example is Justin Trudeau. People who don't normally pay attention to politics were all of a sudden telling me "Oh I like Justin Trudeau" right after his face graced the pages of Vanity Fair magazine. So politics weren't worth the thought until he came out looking all done-up in a fashion magazine. So this research in neuroscience adds reason to that.
But they still dress in ugly suits though. Those politicians - boring suits. [Laughter]
But yes! People are so much more likely to comment on his suit or hair than what he thinks about Bill C-51 or urban planning. It may also be because those are short term "feel-goods". Rather than thinking about, say, more effective city planning which takes time (decades even), but which would lead us to live much, much happier lives. But comparatively it's too long-term. They want that instant gratification of seeing a picture of the handsome politician and then to go over it and critique how it could be more handsome for even more gratification.
Yeah absolutely, it's about flashy things. Certainly. So it's a question for the ages, why people don't participate politically, but definitely reducing the amount of exposure people have to advertising - commercial advertising - would probably make people enjoy their communities more, or feel better about themselves and others, maybe care more about civic issues. There are all kinds of experiments in Spain, and in Portugal where they have completely banned advertisements for people under 17. So there's no advertising for children, period. Because there's no reason to expose children to ads. Because ads are damaging and ads fuel consumerism. Ads fuel the wrong things, these desires as you said. They can also lead to anorexia and to all of those other horrible social effects. And so countries have experimented with this entire idea of having no advertising for anyone under 17 throughout the whole city. And then in entire cities there are no Billboards, period. No external advertising; you can only advertise on your storefront but nothing else. No ads anywhere.
I think that's cool.
Yes, and I would love that. I think if we lived in a world like this - and again I'm speculating here - but I want to believe that if we lived in a world where we were never exposed to that kind of damaging commercial advertisement, perhaps we would start caring about other things, other people, other issues that are more meaningful than choosing which shampoo or shirt to buy.
And in taking away that advertising, we could focus all that energy into designing those public spaces you see in happier cities - where there's that sense of connection, play, openness, and compassion. So much more interaction happens in these beautiful public squares.
Yeah, yeah. Like those public squares that you have in Europe: the famous Piazza in Siena or Florence with the Cathedral. And yes, I also [work extensively to showcase] how the public realm and how public space and the building environment affects sociability.
Tell me about your involvement with working towards establishing a more connected city - You did a series with the Museum of Vancouver?
Yeah, so I co-hosted an event series called Housing for a Connected City. All theory shows that public spaces have a tremendous effect on whether we are able to physically meet each other or not. All this writing comes from years of research - Jane Jacobs is the mother of all this. Her famous book The Death and Life of Great American Cities explains all that. Most recently though, Charles Montgomery here from Vancouver, has a great book on the subject called The Happy City. He's given a TED Talk, he's spoken about it tons of times. Charles is working now with the Museum of Vancouver to create a number of initiatives on that. So he's probably the world expert on public spaces and happiness, and how social interactions happen because of public space. So I was invited to participate in the event by my friend Alicia Medina who's an architect here in Vancouver; she's also from Mexico, from Puebla. She has an organization called The Laboratory of Housing Alternatives (LOHA). The idea of this organization is to try to understand, or create experiments on how housing can be modified to make this city a better place. How do we make housing more affordable and how do we make better housing for professionals. She's not trying to solve the housing crisis in Vancouver for low-income people; she's not trying to solve homelessness. The organization is targeted specifically to people that are professionals - young professionals - that have a job, can afford to live in a city, but face that Vancouver is an impossible place to own a house. You can't buy real estate here even if you have a stable, well-paying job. And a lot of young people feel that they're being pushed to the outskirts. So this laboratory focused on, "Okay how do we reinvent housing?" Take it away from the hands of developers who make all of the decisions in city hall, which is incredibly corrupt. And by corrupt I mean they're giving power to the developers. I'm not saying they're doing anything outside the law, but I think there's a level of moral corruption in allowing the developers to determine city policy.
They have a very narrow interests.
Exactly. So the idea of this organization is to essentially find solutions. They do workshops, and they do events, and all of that. She invited me to curate a series with her of four 'Design Sundays' at the Museum of Vancouver. For four consecutive weeks we had workshops where people would get together and basically redesign the city, or think about new ideas for housing. So it was a very fun series. Vancouver Design Nerds also organized an event - Mitra Mansur was part of that. Then Paul Kershaw from UBC who has this whole idea of "Generation Squeeze": how this generation has been squeezed out of opportunities, and how we're a generation that is deprived of all these financing options compared to our parents' generation. And then there was myself - I organized an event called Rally for Connection where the idea was that it was a protest; a political protest for a connected city. What I wanted to engage people in is this idea that: what if we all showed up one day in city hall demanding better housing. What would that look like? My idea was that the language we use to explain complex ideas matters. Because we use branding and language, we come up with phrases that really capture people's imagination to really get them on board with us. If the language of very complex issues remains very complex and very boring, then people can not connect with it. So the idea was to have a whole three hour session at the Museum where a bunch of people showed up (a bunch of strangers) and I wanted them to imagine what their political protest signs would say or look like if they showed up at city hall with them. It was really fun. We had five groups of people that presented to each other and competed for who had the best logo and the best sign, etcetera. So that whole series really allowed us to experiment with how we could reinvent public spaces specifically for friendliness. The idea was how do we utilize under-utilized spaces in Vancouver to make the city friendlier. For example, one obvious opportunity is alleyways. This is a city where half of the footprint of the city is alleyways. Under-used alleyways with the only purpose being for trash bins. It's ridiculous. But you have alleyways that are dirty, they're scary, there's nothing happening there, because nothing faces it. So what if we started to clean up and activate a bunch of the alley ways of the city?
Like Blood alley right now...
Yeah like Blood Alley. So activate maybe, 10, 20, 30 major alleys in interesting areas of downtown.
Which brings up another point: trash. You don't need all that space for trash bins. Look at [Big Trouble, formerly] the parker right now; it's a restaurant that sticks to it's motto of only generating less than one pound of waste in an entire month.
Yeah, that's great, great stuff.
I wanted to ask you about the arts. You're passionate about theatre and film festivals - everything from documentaries to cinema to plays. Explain the importance of getting people out to support the arts, and why these festivals matter.
So you're asking about the impact of art for social change. [Laughter] No it's tricky. I gave a talk at UBC about this actually. My argument was that art can be very important and fundamental for social change just so long as it's not commercialized. When art gets co-opted by commercial interests, and art gets funded by these interests that are counter to that social change initiative, then the possibility of that can be affected and gets thwarted. So if you have a major oil and gas corporation or a mining corporation funding an art show about mining, well A, the problem is they won't fund it if it's critical to them, and B, if they are funding it they will probably put some restrictions on what the artist can and can not say, and what the interaction can be at [entrance and exit]. But art certainly has the ability to change us.
Now, on the specific question of film festivals and theatre. I got to theatre all the time, at least one a week or every two weeks I go to a show. I know it's a very niche demographic that goes to the theatre. I have never seen a theatre show sell out in Vancouver, or if it does sell out it's a rare thing. Not to mention that most people who go to theatre are in their 50s and 60s. I've never seen this 'youth' component in theatre where tons of people are excited about going to the theatre. And even if theatre is very political and it can be probably the freest way of expressing your idea, you're stuck because of budget restrictions. But with film you can explore incredible things. The cost of making a film is a lot higher than theatre, so theatre perhaps is easier to explore these things, but you can't reach as many people with theatre. With film you can reach millions of people.
Definitely. I find people are certainly more inclined to come to film festivals than to the theatre.
Yeah for sure. I think the barrier to entry for theatre is a lot higher, people are used to the medium of film. So yes, festivals do have a capacity for change. Now here's my interest with this question: I went to the Hot Docs festival in Toronto, and I go to documentaries every year here (I go to VIFF and TIFF and all of them) but I would love to see what the connection is between someone attending a film that really changed their perception or something that really rocked them, or really made them think about something differently, and then them not going home and just leading their life as it already is. So at what point does change happen? I think festivals do a very shitty job of following up with the constituents. And it's not just festivals themselves, but films and film directors, nearly everyone does a shitty job of capturing that demographic that is ignited, that is excited about an issue.
Maybe sending out a survey or a letter to sign after? Or having a discussion or Q and A that allows the audience to ask what to do next like they do after a talk?
Yeah exactly. Some films like Gasland for example, or famously An Inconvenient Truth or Sea Shepherd, at the end of the film they have two full ads. They show a website, how to participate - they give you a little 'action kit'. But maybe this is not that effective because at that point you've been sitting in the theatre and you want to leave, or you're not prepared to be writing things down. But maybe it's effective, maybe it does help. My interest though is when you have films that really have that capacity (and I'm talking specifically of documentaries) of changing a conversation because it informed people about something that's happened where we need the public to take action, I think they could do a much better job of capturing that audience and driving it through the pipeline of how you turn someone from an ignited audience member to an activist that will change the community. So that's one thing.
On the other side, in terms of fiction, what I love about fiction is that I really believe fiction itself just allows us to live in a more compassionate, better world in general. So for fiction films, regardless of whether there's a call to action, when you watch a fiction, it touches you. It allows you to empathize and understand other people; it allows you to feel strongly towards and understand other issues. So then hopefully it generates feelings, compassion, kindness, generosity in you, understanding of other people's situations - which is why it's a tragedy that not more people read fiction. So if there's anything that can save us from being so selfish and disconnected it would maybe be to read more fiction. You learn a lot from these characters. So that's what I love about fiction, certainly. When I go to film festivals, I try to do a combination between documentaries on pressing issues that I care about, documentaries on issues that I had no idea about, and then a lot of fiction. Because creating characters that are powerful is just part of your understanding of human nature. One of the most political films I'd seen in years was this Russian film that was pretty recent and that won a major award in Berlin, the Silver Bear. It was about life in a little fishing village and the corruption there. The whole film talks about the corruption of officials - regional officials - in local government in Russia and the horror that is. So that kind of film really opens your eyes to a reality that is faced by many people living in small villages in Russia, or in many other places around the world.
Going on art being a great medium for social change just so long as commercial or corporate interests don't get involved, let's touch on Corporate interests. I've been on a pendulum because I saw this documentary called Not Business As Usual--
--It's by Institute B. They produced it in Vancouver. I used to work for them.
Oh yeah! Well it's great. It's opens up the idea that corporations can do good. So outerwear manufactures like Patagonia are screening activist films about the environment at their stores while others invest in grassroots organizations struggling to find funding, or others divesting from fossil fuels, or CEOs personally traveling to their factories to make sure human rights are being upheld. Consumers who care are now using their dollar as their vote - they spend more on a company for raising awareness of social justice issues, or for abiding by more progressive standards. So do you see that corporations are starting to be more responsible?
So you mean fundamentally change what it means to be a corporation [Laughter]. I mean, sure, but I believe in co-ops as a model for change, not in corporations. I think that by their very structure corporations are not the right entities to effect global change. Their main priority is to share-holders and to make them profit. So I think money messes everything up. But yeah for sure there are models of better companies, like B Corps, and B Corp is a truly great attempt at really making sure that these companies are responsible to the planet, to their society, and not just to their shareholders. They're keeping themselves in check and also allowing for diversity in their ownership structures of companies. So that allows for diversity, and I mean for diversity not only in terms of gender diversity, but also racial and social diversity of corporate ownership. So yes, that's definitely pretty cool, but I wouldn't bet my money on corporations changing the world.
Well said. Thank you so much Jorge, time has crept up against us, but it was a pleasure exploring these issues with you.
Thank you for having me, it's always great to chat with you as well.
Capture Queue is a one woman team, so it's always greatly appreciated if readers feel inclined to bring my attention to any typos or corrections.