Pop Culture

Empathy the special effect more film-makers should employ

Humanising characters makes a viewer go on a journey, walking in someone else's shoes

"The magic of the movies" is one of those phrases that have been used so often that we do not give it a second thought. But every once in a while, we get a reminder of the power of the motion picture to cast a spell.

Home-grown film-maker Boo Junfeng recently told The Straits Times: "Sometimes, topics may seem contentious and difficult to deal with, but I've always believed that through story-telling, through film, when we are able to humanise characters and make them relatable, these topics no longer remain just topics."

He then added: "They become human experiences with the potential of inspiring empathy.

The world could use a bit more empathy."

He achieved that in his second feature Apprentice, currently in cinemas. The film broaches the controversial topic of capital punishment, but steers away from characters soapboxing about its cons. There are names, faces and stories instead of lectures about the inhumanity of the death penalty.

Along with weighing the impact that killing a prisoner has on the family members left behind, Apprentice also contemplates the toll it takes on the hangman. The act of taking another human life is a heinous one that is condemned in every society and yet, one man is sanctioned by the state to do so.

Films do not have to tackle challenging terrain in order to evoke empathy. Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda’s films about ordinary people living everyday lives are wonderfully humane.

Malaysian actor Wan Hanafi Su's charismatic Rahim has to come to terms with what he does for a living. It is not exactly a job one can easily talk about and the cost of opening up can be high.

At the same time, he takes pride in doing it well - so that death comes quickly and suffering is minimised for the condemned.

As movies trumpet their use of ever more expensive and expansive computer wizardry, it is worth noting that the best special effect a film can have is to evoke empathy.

And that is a way for projects with much smaller budgets to compete against tentpole titles backed by vast resources.

Shedding light on difficult situations is what some documentaries in the Singapore International Festival of Arts' ongoing pre-festival programme The O.P.E.N. do as well.

British film-maker Sean McAllister's A Syrian Love Story (2015) traces the story of Amer and Raghda - they fall in love as political prisoners, get married and start a family. They are lucky in that they were able to obtain asylum in Paris because of Raghda's status as a known dissident of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

But their exile ultimately tears the couple apart. They escape with their lives, but are still casualties of war. The film also provides an entry point into the complicated conflict engulfing Syria and reducing it to rubble.

In the two-parter Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) (2015), film- maker Abbas Fahdel turns the lens on members of his family to show what life was like before and after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 .

The O.P.E.N.'s closing film, Fire At Sea (2016), winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, casts a compassionate eye on the desperate refugees who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea to escape from the horrors unfolding at home.

The conflicts in Iraq and Syria and the migrant crisis in Europe may dog the news, but nothing crystallises notions of war, strife and suffering the way a film does by making them come alive as we experience them through the characters and subjects on the big screen.

Of course, films do not have to tackle challenging terrain in order to evoke empathy.

Take, for instance, Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda's wonderfully humane films about ordinary people living everyday lives, in works such as Still Walking (2008) and Our Little Sister (2015).

He makes the quotidian utterly compelling as he gently paints a picture of the contemporary human condition, one rendered with honesty and great affection for the characters.

Empathy has been likened to walking a mile in someone else's shoes. Movies can take you on that journey - and even show you what those shoes look like.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'Best special effect for a film? Evoke empathy'. Print Edition | Subscribe