Friday, March 15, 2019

Entertain, Don't Preach: Why Your Didactic Film Sucks

     The film industry is inundated with creators and entertainers pushing to win over audiences in the hopes of becoming an overnight sensation and possibly a worldwide influence.  Indie filmmakers (like us) are always at the helm of finding new and innovated ways of getting noticed outside of the Hollywood system.  However, a growing trend has been rearing its ugly head among indies and even studios that's been influenced by the polarization of our political system.  Though this isn't a political post, it's worth pointing out that the result is (wrongfully) making headway in order to push political agendas directly into the storytelling process.  That trend is the prevalence of the didactic story.

     1. intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive
     2. in the manner of a teacher, particularly so as to treat someone in a patronizing way

     I often tell people that audiences go to the movies to be entertained, and they go to church to be taught a lesson, but that still doesn't stop them from wanting to push for the didactic film for their own personal reasons.  I've lost count of how many horrible stories, movies, and shows we've come across that contain the overarching agenda of "teaching" the audience how to behave, how consequences work, or how they will be dealt with, and they just leave horrible tastes in everyone's mouth.  Your #1 goal as a filmmaker is to entertain, not to teach - that's why it's called the "Entertainment Industry."  In fact, the moment you feel you know better than the cumulative brainpower of the entirety of your audience is the moment you will lose them.  That sort of arrogance is what's been getting these filmmakers in trouble and threatening their fan base and reception as a whole.  You want a surefire way of stifling your growth as a filmmaker?  Make a didactic film.

     To be clear, this is not to say that your film cannot have zeitgeist themes and topics like the current political polarization, but rather that when doing a film for entertainment, the politics of that world need to stay within the world of the characters and not try to breach into the audience as a force of example teaching them something.  Relating a protagonist to an audience on a fundamental level is crucial to most storytelling, but it does not play well when forcing inauthentic characterization out of the film's universe.  Audiences will suspend belief over fictional fantasy that is consistent throughout but not at the expense that the creator is somehow "smarter" or "knows better" than they do in terms of morality.  This is exactly why didactic films fail.  It's been the bane of church films for years now (not religious films; church films) - "let's make a film to teach the ignorant about how they're wrong for behaving the way they do or having a differing opinion"... it's absolute rubbish.

     One recent example of a didactic film we came across was a movie from Hulu's Into the Dark series called The Treehouse (bit of a SPOILER ahead - skip to the next section).  The trailer?  Fantastic and compelling; made us want to watch it.  The conflict?  Alluring with a sense of mystery and fantasy when it FINALLY picked up (almost 45 minutes in - ugh).  The actors?  They performed well.  The story and payoff at the end?  PFFFTTT!!!  Didactic bullshit!  The consistency of the universe they built ended as if it was some huge joke to fool not just the protagonist but the audience as well in lieu of forcing a lesson rather than portraying a snapshot of an interesting story.  In fact, if they would have just stuck with the supernatural theme being real, then they wouldn't have screwed the pooch every which way but loose.  Instead of delivering on the promise of being a supernatural fantasy thriller, the story fizzled out and let everything go as a picturesque of downtrodden women getting back at one asshole of a man (who was the protagonist, no less) - their efforts now lessened in the face of the lesson they wanted to teach the protagonist AND the audience.  The overall message was that men shouldn't rape women (admirable and very true, but again - this is not church) or else women will lash out together like a coven of witches pretending to fool you into believing magic is real.  It was actually counter-intuitive to the #metoo movement and downplayed it by reducing real women who have been victims of rape and sexual assault to conniving, vengeful bitches who hate men that will do anything to "trick" them into believing what they did was wrong instead of seeking real justice.  Sorry, but that's a real shitty kind of representation there.  This is also outside of the fact that there was no empathy for the protagonist - there was no one the audience could relate to by the end of the film since they pulled away from the protagonist and didn't build enough for the witches.  If they would have told the story from the women's side to begin with (to stick to their theme by the end), then we would have felt more driven to agree with their situation.  That's what happens when didactic-style film making takes over good storytelling and structure - they don't fall flat, they fall under.

     One huge tip to ensure you stay away from didactic-style writing is to keep the political world surrounding your protagonist and characters as external forces for them alone.  The Rules of the Universe can align to authentic situations we have in the real world for inspiration, or they can be completely made up and as wild as you want them.  However, they need to stay in that world instead of try to reach outside of the confines of the story to purposely influence the audience towards a lesson of your choosing.  If you want to teach people morality lessons, then become a Preacher not an Entertainer -  unless you're really adept at satire.  If you believe your lesson somehow holds a moral high ground that justifies making a didactic narrative, then you have no real understanding of the entertainment business at all nor what makes a good story.

Written by: J Hooligan

#indie #indiefilmmaker #indiefilmmaking #didactic #story #storytelling #film #filmblog #entertainment 

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