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The Duty of Film

The 2018 Queen biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, didn’t tell the truth. From changing the order of events that actually occurred, to creating ones that didn’t, the scriptwriters rewrote history and with it wielded their influence over public perceptions of the band.

But is this a bad thing? By fabricating the past, did the scriptwriters renege on their duty to tell the truth?

Did they even have a duty?

Lit up mask in a forest.
Mask in the Wood | Philmblog | Philosophy of Film

The British Broadcasting Corporation’s core mission is famously to educate, entertain and inform. These three words, these three concepts, are the bedrock on which the public service is founded, and are the values over which its entire output is measured against. From the service’s first ever broadcast, right up to the simultaneous TV programs, radio shows, podcasts and online publications it is producing this very moment, every single piece of content is supposed to have these three aims in mind. They are the principals the corporation strives to uphold for itself and are used as the overall means to measure the quality of a given piece of output. Failing on one means a given piece of content fails on them all.

These core values of the BBC are important for our discussion because they are duties. Duties which could be applicable to all pieces of media, namely, in this instance, films. The argument is an intriguing one: given the BBC – one of the world’s biggest creators of films – believes its duties to be to educate, entertain and inform, could it be said that these are the duties of all films worldwide?

The issue with this argument is that the BBC is a public service. It is funded by UK taxpayers and therefore necessarily has a different set of standards – of duties – to fulfil than a privately funded piece of media. Put simply, anything paid for by the public should be to the benefit of the public, and has to have a stringent set of rules in place to safeguard the public from harm, whereas if something isn’t paid for by the public it doesn’t have to follow the same criteria.

This is an interesting counterargument that doesn’t always follow. If we consider the UK healthcare system: there’s the publicly funded NHS and the privately funded Bupa. Both systems, even though one is publicly funded and one is privately funded, have to follow the same set of duties towards patient care in order to keep people safe. Hence, if there is no difference between the duties of public and private systems when it comes to healthcare, should there be when it comes to cinema?

Yet, cinema isn’t split just between public and privately funded films. The latter can also be very roughly split between studios and independents. So does this spit offer any insight into the possible duties of films?

For films created by big studios – ones such as Universal, Paramount and Disney – their core duty is to make money. These are huge companies with shareholders and their primary reason for existence is to generate income: if a film fails to turn a profit, then it can be said to have failed in its duty. This is a duty that is apparent when look at which films tend to be turned into franchises. If a film has created a profit for a studio, and there’s further viable stories to be told, then a sequel will often be commissioned; something that rarely follows a flop.

For films created by independent companies, often nowadays launched by Kickstarter, the duty is two-fold. The first is the same as the big studios: to earn money. The second is much harder to define and therefore much harder to gauge the success of: to fulfil the wishes of the people who have donated money to the creation of the film (Kickstarter backers, for example). This second duty brings in a grey area, and brings us closer to another question around the duty of film: its purpose.

The difference between the duty of films created by studios and independents so far has only considered films as a commodity, as something to be bought and sold for a profit. Whilst this is naturally a large part of the modern film industry, it fails to consider the original purpose of film – that of being an art form.

If we consider the other forms of art: painting, writing, photography, sculpture and so on, their primal purpose has been to hold a mirror up to our world and get us to evaluate what we see. It is because of this that art can be as comforting as unsettling, as it makes us aware of our own successes and failings. Comforting when we see our own actions as good; unsettling when we see our own actions as bad. Art holds a mirror up not only to our world but to us, and makes us analyse our own morality. It is, therefore, maybe the case that the duty of art, indeed the duty of film, is one of morality.

But morality in what way?

Well, if art allows us to see our own morality, to realise our own moral truth, then maybe the duty of art is to expose truth?

Which leads me back to the question of Bohemian Rhapsody. If the duty of film is to expose truth, then Bohemian Rhapsody fails its duty because it invents events and tells them out of order whilst proclaiming itself a biopic.

Yet this conclusion doesn’t feel right.

Bohemian Rhapsody, whilst based on historical events, doesn’t refer to itself as a documentary. It doesn’t pretend to be an accurate representation of historical events – indeed it bills itself as "based on" true events – and, because of this, has used techniques to make the story as emotionally engaging and coherent as possible. If it billed itself as a documentary then one could and indeed should expect it to tell the objective truth, but because it bills itself as a biopic, indeed because the two different terms exist, we can expect it to use artistic license to bring a story to life.

So if this conclusion doesn’t feel right, where does that leave the conclusion that the duty of film is to tell the truth?

Well the answer is in that feeling. Whilst it doesn’t seem right for the duty of all films to be to tell the truth – the objective truth – it does seem right for the duty of films to be to tell the subjective truth. That is, the truth of their creators. These are the people that had the initial idea for the film, worked tirelessly to bring it to life and then have to live with it for the rest of their lives. Film is a commodity and an art form, and even if the duties of these two differ, they will always be bound by their creator – a creator who was implored by their view on the way the world is to create, and who now has the duty of telling subjective truth through their work.

The BBC’s core mission has been so successful because it works for artwork as a commodity and an art form. It is genius because it reflects the duties of creators. For when a creator attempts to impart their objective truth, they are doing something that enriches, educates and entertains – even if it is only ever viewed by themselves.

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