What responsibility is there to give back to the cause associated with the content?
It was the final victory party most expected Sunday night at The Oscars as Slumdog Millionaire walked away with wins for Best Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay.
There’s been much talk about the little movie that could, and what makes it click on so many levels to both the public and the press alike. It’s basic structure is the familiar rags to riches story arc of a young boy and his quest for a better life to get the girl. Yet it’s the setting of Mumbai India and the depiction of the determined 25% who live in slums many of us knew nothing about that makes the film different. And finally it’s the visionary director’s execution that makes it memorable.
There’s also been much talk on whether the two children plucked out of the slums, Azhar and Rubina, were adequately compensated to be in the movie and whether the all-to-real story of human suffering in Mumbai is being exploited for commercial reasons. To be clear, by most updated accounts the children’s education has been paid for and a trust fund established to cover basic living costs. As many watched Sunday the two were even flown into Hollywood to attend the Oscar ceremony. But after the red carpet was rolled up, they returned to their lives in the slums as they’ve always known. To that, some say more should be done by those involved with a project that’s made over $130 million with just a very relatively modest $15 million production budget.
Which raises the moral question of what responsibility do the filmmakers owe both to the specific actors and all the people in the slums profiled in the movie? According to CNN:
“Boyle said the film's financial backers have agreed that charitable groups that help children of the slums will also see "a slice of the profits."
‘We've all agreed that we will sit down and dedicate a slice of the profits of the film to be distributed amongst people like those who run the school and other organizations who make a big difference to children's lives there,’ he said.
‘We gained from the city, both from these two children and from the city, in general, and we'll make sure the film gives back some of the enormous success it's had,’ he said.”
Some argue that’s still not enough. But Slumdog is not a documentary, it’s mean to be entertainment first and foremost. In fact it’s the latest in a long line of multi-million dollar “cause entertainment” vehicles called movies that bring needed awareness to an important social issue by sharing people and their stories rather than issues and their statistics. This year alone saw fellow Academy Award nominees Milk bring attention to the Gay Rights issue and Wall*E give both a humorous and sobering take on conspicuous consumption, health/wellness and environment. Other recent Oscar nominated movies that speak to topics of the time include Hotel Rwanda, Brokeback Mountain, American History X, Cider House Rules, Schindler's List, and Philadelphia. All provided a glimpse into a struggle in a raw way never done before. In fact Hollywood has a rich history of using it’s talents to frame significant topics. Think Mississippi Burning, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Norma Rae, A Clockwork Orange, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and The Wild One.
Bottom line: if there’s no one watching the movie then there’s no one talking about the issue. And if no one sees nor talks about it then there’s no money to share with those in need in the first place.
Which brings us back to Slumdog. I agree “slice of the profits” isn't exactly specific nor transparent. And sure a peak at the official film’s website reveals the soundtrack for sale on itunes, and a text-delivery of ringtones and widgets. There could easily have been a “click here to learn how you can help” banner with a brief video showing where the two actors return to and offering a way for consumers to donate directly to those charities referenced by Boyle. And in his own grassroots publicity campaign, especially once Oscar buzz started to build and the film became a media darling, the director could have plugged a “savetheslumdogs.org” type site. But it's a fine line. People watch movies to escape from their everyday world. Sometimes that escape is lighthearted sometimes frightening and sometimes jarring and thought provoking – and when done really well like Slumdog all the above. But people don’t want to be berated or lectured to. Especially as they are deciding where to spend their money. Entertain first. Inform second. Advocate third. That’s following the script for success in cause entertainment.