Slumdog Millionaire – In Your Face Poverty and Film Illiteracy

I led an adult church school discussion today on the movie Slumdog Millionaire and its possible role in our faith journeys. During the discussion I was struck by two issues: 1) the local versus global response to poverty and 2) the importance of knowing the language of film before being able to use movies to examine one’s faith. The first relates to one of the major themes of the movie, while the second relates to the movie’s ability to engage the audience.

Those who want to be entertained by movies were put off by the grittiness of the poverty. The reaction to the movie’s depiction of poverty seemed connected to the viewers’ opinions of what a person can do at a local versus what a person can’t do at a global level.

“There will always be poor. Why would I want to spend two hours being forced to look it when I can’t do anything about it? I help people here at home.” I had started the class, after all, with this quote from Deuteronomy 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” In Jesus’ day, the poor person was right beside you or off to the side. There certainly weren’t compelling images of slums thousands of miles away and accompanied by orchestral yearnings. What would Jesus’ message be in this age of globalization?

Others were comfortable, if not thankful for, being challenged by the film’s dramatic and overwhelming scenes of poverty in the Mumbai slums. “It [the movie] made me aware of how so many other people live. How can they have any happiness in that poverty, yet they didn’t seem that unhappy. It makes me wonder what I need to be happy.” From those same people came discussion about the dignity of all people, in spite of how they live. Surely, a more reflective view, but what will come of it?

In Pope Benedict XVI’s World Day of Peace Message (2009, #2), he addresses the complexity of poverty and what our response should be:

…Fighting poverty requires attentive consideration of the complex phenomenon of globalization. This is important from a methodological standpoint, because it suggests drawing upon the fruits of economic and sociological research into the many different aspects of poverty. Yet the reference to globalization should also alert us to the spiritual and moral implications of the question, urging us, in our dealings with the poor, to set out from the clear recognition that we all share in a single divine plan: we are called to form one family in which all – individuals , peoples and nations—model their behavior according to the principles of fraternity and responsibility.

Pope Benedict’s message also suggests the importance of being informed if we are going to make effective decisions regarding poverty, for example, “drawing upon the fruits of economic and sociological research.” We are all not researchers but we do get a lot of information from movies. Film is a ubiquitous source of information – it both reflects and influences. But some people in my discussion group could not grapple with the meanings in Slumdog because they do not know the language of film, and the movie’s syntax got in the way of the message. They don’t know what close-ups or medium shots communicate about a character. They don’t know what the director is trying to say with choice of lighting or camera angle. Slumdog has many scenes shot with hand-held cameras, a technique used more frequently as a way to show frantic action. Several discussants just couldn’t get past the dizzying effects and the cacophony of the camera movement. They hated the movie. They didn’t see any spiritually redeeming moments at all. The more experienced movie goers in the group were not as put off by the hand-held camera work and were able to focus on the story and the relevance of it to their own lives.

I’m not saying, of course, that film literacy is a way to fight poverty, but when film is the medium of the message, knowing the language of the medium opens the door to informed discourse about poverty.

Next week I will be presenting the movie Doubt. You can bet I will begin with explanations about that film’s language before I launch into analyzing the language that Streep, the nun, and Hoffman, the priest, exchange. Of course poverty is not the subject of Doubt, homophobia is. I imagine there will be a local versus global response to that too. Stay tuned!

(Here’s an interesting article about the use and misuse of handheld camera work )

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About Patti Albaugh

I grew up in Mount Vernon, Ohio, and graduated from Mount Vernon High School in 1965. I have a Bachelor's Degree from Mount Vernon Nazarene University and a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. I am an Emeritus Professor at Otterbein University. In addition to writing creative nonfiction and fiction, I like genealogy, gardening, travel and Mah Jjong. I currently live in Tucson, Arizona, with my dog Tonto. I am the proud parent of children Justin and Amy and granddaughters Katherine and Zoe.
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