Why I love film – thoughts on identification, representation, and the joys of the strange

While preparing to write about my first ever viewing of the 80’s classic Stand by Me (1986, Rob Reiner), I got to thinking on the role that identification plays in my enjoyment of film. As a European adult woman any immediate identification with the four American boys at the centre of this film is in no way straightforward. I am sure I approach this film differently due to my far removal from the world lived by the boys in the film. Yet, I don’t believe this means a removal of the self, from experiencing an emotional connection to the boys and their stories. I was struck by the film’s raw and deeply honest depiction of boyhood, and moved by the bittersweet nostalgia present in the narrating voice of a grown up Gordie. Sure, I can relate to the magical freedom of childhood summers, as well as the easy and intense bonds of childhood friendships – long lost in adult life but ever present in fond memories. I relate, but don’t identify with the boys of Stand by Me. I have not experienced the special bond between boys portrayed in this film but I still connect to the story being told and the emotions evoked. I feel this connection because Stand by Me is well-written, honest, and specific in its world and character depictions. For a moment we are all invited into these boys’ world, their reality, and the journey they go on.

Let film exercise those empathy muscles

One of my main enjoyments in film, has always been the insights it brings to people, situations, and environments that I have no first-hand experience with. Film lets me understand the emotions, the reactions, hopes, and dreams of characters existing beyond my limited everyday scope. Roger Ebert said it best when he referred to film as a machine that generates empathy. For me, film has always been an amazing exercise in precisely that. Empathy is not and should not be dependent upon identification. My interest in another human, their way of life, emotions and thoughts, should not be dependent on the amount of relational points I can connect between myself and their being.

Proper representation is however vitally important. When I speak of not needing identification to enjoy a film, I do not mean to neglect the great need for better minority representation in mainstream cinema. Quite the opposite in fact. I myself am admittedly thrilled whenever a film is able to pass the Bechdel test with ease, or when other relationships than those based on heteronormative structures are shown with care and consideration. Now and again I enjoy hearing my mother tongue being spoken rather than the pervasive American, which I am used to in my daily media consumption. I enjoy having fictional female characters with agency to look up to, and I wish for everyone to see themselves and their reality reflected on screen in a multitude of ways.

Representation is an important topic as it shines a much needed light on the mainstream film and TV industry’s depressing lack of diversity when it comes to the inclusion of different races, sexualities, gender identities, and let’s be honest pretty much anyone that lies beyond the traditional white, cis, able-bodied, hetero standard. It is vital that minorities see themselves reflected on film and TV in three-dimensional roles, and as the focal points of a wide range of narratives. There are so many great stories not being told, and audiences are desperately wanting to see them. I want to see film tell the stories of those whose experiences are very different from my own, just as much as I wish to see parts of my own identity explored and reflected back to me on screen. After all, direct identification is not needed for the emotional connection and interest in the lives of those that appear different from you. We would all benefit from a greater diversity of identities present on our screens and in the stories we are told.

Balance the need for representation and identification with curiosity for the foreign and unknown

I want to see the diversity of human possibilities, realities, and experiences that this world has to offer, and I believe film to be an incredible medium to do so. Some narratives I will connect with on an extremely personal level because they touch upon experiences, troubles, and doubts I recognize only too well in myself. This, I felt in abundance while viewing a film like Frances Ha (2012, Noah Baumbach) and the main character’s twenty-something efforts to make something of her life, while continually feeling inadequate and falling short in the process. Others I will connect to precisely because of their depiction of a world I do not know. I never imagined I would be emotionally invested in a Mongolian nomad family and their camel, but this was before I watched the German/Mongolian documentary Die Geschichte vom weinenden Kamel (2003, Byambasuren Davaa, Luigi Falorni). Suddenly I see this family’s daily joys and struggles and am intrigued by how they navigate life and relationships in their own specific way.

Why I love film

I love film as a reflection of the society I am part of, as a treatment of the history I come from, and as ruminations on the futures I could help prevent or create.

I love film as an insight into cultures, people, and parts of society that I am ignorant of in my day-to-day life, as a bridge to understanding perspectives that lie beyond those that surround me, and as a delightful way of experiencing stories distinctly foreign and yet universally human with those emotional connections great storytelling can create.

I love film as a storytelling medium, and storytelling is for me one of the finest ways us humans have of grasping the great complexities on this earth. It is the variety of human life combined with the shared experience of human emotions that excites and inspires me. Film, as well as storytelling in general, provides one of the sweetest avenues through which to explore the boundless varieties of life and living.

This is why, despite never knowing a Chris, a Teddy, or a Vern, never having been a Gordie, visited Oregon, or been on a trek to see a dead body, I couldn’t help but shed a small tear as Gordie paid tribute to his childhood friends and the bond they shared. I experienced that bond, was witness to their memories, was present on that trek and empathised with Gordie’s loss despite being nowhere near an American boy from rural Oregon.

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