Three-time Oscar winner Oliver Stone spoke about why films are important when it comes to politics and making policies.
On a warm Tuesday afternoon under the Singapore sun, Hollywood film maker Oliver Stone came to my school and gave a public lecture on “Film and Politics”. He was in Singapore because he is the Artistic Director of the NYU Tisch School of Arts Asia based here thus he often comes to Singapore several times in a year. This time, our school managed to get him to talk to our students and several other members of the public about the importance of movies in politics and policies.
When Vice Dean of Research Dr. Astrid Tuminez introduced Oliver Stone, the three words that described him was talent, controversy, and fearlessness. During the course of the public lecture and the following Q&A session, the audience knew why those three words were chosen.
Stone opened the lecture mentioning about conspiracies, as to him, only two types of conspiracies matter, the causes leading to war and the financial crisis. Conspiracies questioning Obama’s birth in the U.S. for example, is not an important conspiracy. Wars and financial crises relates to Stone’s famous movies, such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Wall Street, in addition to other political-historical movies that he made such as JFK, W., Nixon, and World Trade Center.
As a film maker, Stone is interested in history. He looks for perspectives, going past the news and not chase them. When you make films, you have to do your research, go out to the field and talk to people about the events that unraveled on that historical moment. Stone believes that memories are important – “without it we are f**ked” as he said it bluntly – because it is constantly threatened by news, bad news that sells especially, that changes the narrative of the history.
People make policies out of their own perspectives, narrated by the common delusion of history. Stone gave an example of the delusion surrounding the Vietnam War, which was very close to his personal experience during his combat duty there and resulted in the academy award winning movie, Platoon. He made two other movies on the Vietnam War such as Born on the Fourth of July and Heaven and Earth.
Stone gave an alternative historical narrative of whether Americans won the Vietnam War or lost it. He gave a perspective on why it happened and what actually happened during the war, and from my understanding, he did that in the hopes that decision-makers will take note of these perspectives to make better policies in the future. This is why he questioned the motives of the U.S. in their “war on terror”, engaging combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the concept is distorted and will only get more expensive and deadlier in the long run.
Oliver Stone described himself as a dramatist, not a documentarist. He reads materials from the “left, right and center” and invent dialogues to recreate the feel, the drama that happened during the time. He gave the example of the movie JFK, in which he recreated the drama that happened during President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. He honestly said that as a film maker you have to be cautious, as the drama created in the after-effects of the movie might overshadow the drama in the movie itself, as in the case of JFK.
Stone also cautioned that film makers need to balance between their message and the need to tailor it for the audience. “If you’re out there to preach, you’re not going to get it made”, he said. Stone likes to make movies that matter, but balance is important.
Financing movies are also difficult, because he sees the movies business like a satellite business, a mobile empire, where every movie is its own mission and you have to start over every time. You can’t build on top of a movie, because people judge movies harshly, although sometimes a bit of reputation help. Stone finds investors for his movies everywhere, not just in the U.S, but also in Paris, Germany, and even Hong Kong.
Piracy, he mentioned, works both ways. Of course, film makers lose their money out of the sale of pirated DVDs, but it helps distribution and make your message across even more.
Another interesting point that was discussed was whether the Government is good or bad for the arts. Government censorship and freedom of speech was the issue, whether getting subsidies or financial aid from the government can retaliate in the form of whether the media or the arts industry will “shut-up” in return for the government’s money. Stone mentioned that it is better-off without subsidy, but as a form of freedom of speech, things do come back at you so better make your message responsibly.
The brief one-hour public lecture with Oliver Stone made me wonder, is there any film maker in Indonesia that is as talented, controversial and fearless such as him? One who is able to straighten out our historical narratives? Even if we have such film makers, making political movies in Indonesia might be difficult, as government censorship and audience response will be an issue.
If I was given an opportunity to make my own films about Indonesia, I would research and look into several topics: the events that happened during 1965, the mass murder of the Communist Party by the military, East Timor and Papua, and the riots in 1998. These are some historical events that are, in my opinion, distorted in Indonesia.
Films gives an alternative perspective and have the option to correct the narratives of our history. If our history are distorted, how do we make sure that the policies we make have incorporated the lessons learned of our past mistakes?
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