Telluride 2012: Ben Affleck to Filmmakers: 'Ward Off Cynicism,' Movies Can Change the World

With a number of this year's films focusing on terrorism, their directors debate what impact they will have.

Can movies change the world? That was the topic on the table at a Telluride Film Festival panel on terrorism hosted by film scholar Annette Insdorf. And Ben Affleck, whose new film Argo, emerged as the top Oscar contender unveiled at this year's festival, argued forcibly that they can. 

In the fact-based Argo, Affleck plays a CIA man who saves six Americans in the 1979 Iran hostage crisis by defying orders to abandon them. "He was aware of how the policies of the CIA had put them in the place they were in," Affleck explained. (In 1953, the CIA overthrew Iran's elected president to install the brutish Shah, who was overthrown in turn by the current Islamist regime.) "But he still wanted in some measure to try to make it right. So this idea of not giving up is noble. And I would also caution the other members of this panel to ward off their cynicism and remember that those of us in America get our education from movies. We know Adams because we saw Paul Giamatti with his hat on marching around on HBO, and we learn about Lincoln because we see Daniel Day-Lewis in a Spielberg film. We know Harry Potter can fly because we've seen him do it."

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"The people who see these films will believe them," said Affleck, referring to the films by his fellow panelists:  Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers (about Israel's secret police), Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (about the 1965 US-backed Indonesian genocide) and Ziad Doueiri's The Attack (a fictional but deeply fact-inspired film about a Palestinian suicide bomber). "I genuinely -- not believe, but know, that there will be an impact."

Terror-war expert Mark Danner remained skeptical. "We live in the era of frozen scandal," Danner said. "What happens if we see wrongdoing, torture, WMD, or a genocide in Indonesia that kills a million people -- what if people find out about it and nothing happens? Anwar Congo in Joshua's film killed 1,000 people with his hands. The perpetrators were not punished. In fact, they continued to rule that society."

The Gatekeepers shockingly documents the 1995 assassination of Israel's peace-deal-seeking premiere Yitzahk Rabin and plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock by religious extremists, who were barely punished and whose power has grown since, and the escalation of the conflict since the Six-Day War. Moreh doubts peace is at hand, even though the tough, terrorist-hunting Israeli secret police he interviews wound up in favor of it. 

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"People ask me, do you think film can bring about change? I didn't believe it for a long time," said the Lebanese Doueiri, whose The Attack was so popular at Telluride the staffer introducing it on Saturday told the crowd, "Congratulations for getting in!"

"I live in a place where you're fed antisemitic feeling," said Doueiri, who said his mind was forever changed by a screening of Night and Fog at film school. "I thought, how can those people have a narrative? How can those people have a story to tell?" Watching Waltz With Bashir, an Israeli soldier's-eye view of the Lebanon invasion, "About 15 times I was about to walk out of the film, because the film takes place on the street where I grew up." Watching The Gatekeepers, said Doueiri, "I came out of the film plenty pissed. I felt I wished the Arabs would talk."

In The Attack, the Arabs do talk -- as well as others like an Israeli secret-serviceman, who resembles two of the real guys in Moreh's film. More than any film I have ever seen, Doueiri's takes you into the heart and soul of an Arab caught between Israel -- where the hero is a prominent, prizewinning doctor -- and Nablus, the Palestinian town devastated by the conflict and bitterly resistant. The hero's wife is the accused suicide bomber. Accepting an award, the hero jokes that every Jew is a bit of an Arab, and vice versa. "The Jews talk with their hands, yell and talk over each other; so do the Arabs," said Doueiri. "Israelis claim they invented the felafel; Lebanese say we invented the felafel."

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Like blended cuisines, Doueiri's and Moreh's films go together. They are almost mirror images, the ultimate double bill, giving the conflict a deepening stereoscopic view. Taken with Affleck's big studio movie with a brain and a political consciousness, they will change hearts and minds. And in Telluride, they all came together. "Something has broken," said Doueiri of his own experience as a filmmaker and festivalgoer. "I'm glad I went through this journey." Maybe they'll all reunite on Oscar night.