Every year I try to watch the films nominated for the Best Picture award at the Oscars. Last week, I saw one of these, Philomena, starring Judy Dench and Steve Coogan and directed by Stephen Frears. The film is about Philomena Lee (Dench), an old Irish woman who is searching for the son that the Catholic Church forced her to give into adoption fifty years prior. A prominent English journalist, Martin Sixsmith (Coogan), decides to help her on this mission, which leads them back to the convent where Philomena’s baby was sold off to an American family. Philomena was one of thousands of “fallen women” who were forced into giving away their children by the Irish Catholic Church because of the stigma associated with single parenthood during the 1950s and 60s.
Although the film touches on this larger problem, part of its charm is that it does not turn into a moral crusade against the Church. Instead it remains focused on Philomena’s personal story, which is filled with enough drama to keep the audience engaged. Indeed, although Sixsmith clearly expresses his disgust for the behavior of the Church, it is Philomena, who has the best reason to lose her faith, who shows a surprising lack of bitterness and remains steadfast to her religion. Dench anchors the phases of their search, which at times make it feel like a road movie, with an emotional but controlled performance. Coogan displays his characteristic wit and timing that makes some of the darker moments more bearable.
Philomena is based on a book written by Sixsmith called The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. It is essentially journalism translated into film—a long piece of non-fiction has been made more accessible by its adaptation into a more popular medium. When a work of fiction, like Harry Potter, is made into a film, it is accepted that the director will take certain liberties in the process of changing art form, in the same way that Rowling herself has distorted aspects of reality in creating the world of the books. So many films are based on “a true story”, but it is hard to know where the exact truth ends and artistic license begins. I think it is necessary to more closely examine the nature of these adaptations in the case of films like Philomena. These serve to educate their audience about a long narrative of actual events and replace the need to follow the whole journalistic narrative about the issue. The events of Philomena and the selling of babies by the Irish Church are probably not that widely known, so this film can take on a useful educative function. Indeed, the film has clearly had an impact; Coogan and the real Philomena Lee met with Pope Francis on February 6th as part of their campaign to make the Irish Church release documents relating to 60,000 similar cases.
For other recent Oscar contenders, like Zero Dark Thirty, the narrative behind the film is far more well known. Zero Dark Thirty does focus specifically on the role of one agent in tracking down Bin Laden, but also recreates the more general narrative after 9/11 that led to his death. Most of the people who have watched Zero Dark Thirty would have been alive in 2001, and would be able to distinguish the dramatized elements of the film from the actual ten-year saga to locate him.
However, there is a danger that for future generations, Zero Dark Thirty could be their method of accessing and understanding these events. A film like Zero Dark Thirty will be useful in portraying part of the fallout from 9/11, but it is worrying that someone born in 2013 might take the events of the film to be exactly what happened.
An example of this is last year’s Best Picture winner, Argo, which portrayed the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. I did not know much about this before I saw the film, but now virtually all of my knowledge about this tense political situation comes from an Oscar-winning movie. Argo seems to assume this informative role, as it is based on a book and an article in Wired. However, there are many factual inaccuracies in the film. For example, the role of the Canadian diplomats was downplayed and the finale made the characters’ escape from Tehran much more tense than it was in reality. Yet for some people, Argo is the main source of information about these events. Their knowledge of the crisis is shaped by decisions made by filmmakers.
It’s great that films that follow interesting and important non-fiction narratives are being made and are so critically acclaimed. It is always going to be hard to create a compelling feature length film out of real events that probably do not have the twists and turns an audience has come to expect. However, directors and producers need to understand the educative roles that these films might play—if not now, in the future. They should recognize that film is becoming a powerful form of journalism and so must put themselves under the same scrutiny that a journalist faces, even if they do not have anyone to answer to because of their artistic abilities. Much of a film’s success comes from the enjoyment it gives its audience. Films like Philomena, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty probably would not have been as popular if they had been made as documentaries. However, in making these films, it is becoming more important for directors to weigh up the balance between truth and dramatization, but it is also crucial that audiences scrutinize this balance.