Film as an Agent of Social Change: Documentaries and First Reformed 

The Art of Film making

Film is a magical art form that can transport audiences into some of the most comfortable and beautiful worlds as well as worlds that are oppressive and overwhelming. As a whole, they can bring people together—they are one of the things that my friends and family talk about with me the most. They can also highlight a diversity of topics and push forward specific narratives that may be forgotten in the endless deluge of news and content. Every film is special in this way, as they can all each present different perspectives and the nuances that are often lost. Compounded with the fact that every viewer comes from a whole host of backgrounds, the potential difference a film can make is impossible to predict. Not every filmmaker strives to change the world with their work, but everyone devoted to their craft certainly desires their films to move audiences and provoke a dialogue. First Reformed (2017) from Paul Schrader is one of these films that’s impact on audiences was, and continues to be following the release of the film, tough to determine. It follows Ethan Hawke’s character, pastor Ernst Toller, as he confronts a crisis of faith that is aggravated by the looming doom of climate change. Unlike an environmentalist documentary such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) which is intended to teach, First Reformed artistically depicts the grueling dread someone experiences in this brutal reality. The impact of An Inconvenient Truth was visible, encouraging more awareness and activism regarding the issue, but the impact of First Reformed on audiences is more elusive.

The Social Impact of Films

Before seeing First Reformed, some other films that had a great influence on me that helped me realize just how special the medium was were Heaven Knows What (2014) and Embrace of the Serpent (2015). These films are intense and more so than draw the viewer in, they drown them in the story and the aesthetics. They encouraged me to think critically and look deeper into humanity, realizing one’s capacity for violence in addition to understanding others. These ideas and feelings were not new to me, but I was shown the depth of their reality and how heavy and present they were in the world that I lived in. These were also narrative films, and there was still a distancing effect from my day-to-day life, a life that would be impacted more tangibly by documentaries. Through films such as The Cove (2009), Blackfish (2013), and Cowspiracy (2014), I was able to recognize my role in the exploitation of animals. After watching these films, I chose to change my whole life up to that point and live a vegan life. Film is powerful, but at the same time there are a great number of variables that are always at play when attempting to measure a film’s social impact.


Documentaries are films that have a more observable impact and social change on societies and behaviors. Often the filmmakers behind them are associated and working with different activists and organizations that are related to the issues they showcase. On the other hand, narrative films have more uncertain influences that are less measurable. The documentary Blackfish dives deep into the history of SeaWorld and the exploitation of sea mammals like whales and dolphins, particularly orcas, as a form of entertainment. It investigates the conditions behind the scenes, what SeaWorld tries to keep hidden, and guides the viewer into a conclusion that SeaWorld’s treatment of these animals and the support consumers give them are questionable. As a result of the film, SeaWorld attendance saw sharp declines, and stock prices fell. In an effort to come back into the public’s good graces, SeaWorld eventually announced that it would cease the use of orcas in the future. They stated that, “the current generation of killer whales will be the last orcas housed in captivity.” Alternatively, a narrative film that has been connected to social change is Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005). The mainstream film told the story of the adversity two men felt dealing with their sexuality. Additionally, even though the film was an incredibly normative and white story, it pushed boundaries. Culture professor David Shumway has written that the film played some part in the countries’ increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, saying that there is no other narrative work depicting a same-sex romantic love narrative that “has so broadly appealed to both gays and straights.”

Problems & Solutions

The reason why both of these films succeeded so well in their goals is partly because they were made very competently. On top of this, viewers of both these films knew what they were getting into when they went to go see it. They knew the SeaWorld documentary was going to shine a light on their bleak reality, and they knew the “gay cowboy” movie was going to be men confronting their sexuality. The way these films succeeded though, is expanding on these expectations by exploring the real depths of the issues. People were aware of pollution and were overall apathetic, but An Inconvenient Truth opened their eyes; people knew about the existence and marginalization of queer people, but not the extent of their persecution and inner trauma. Alternatively, First Reformed is a film about a depressed pastor who deals with alcoholism. The climate change thread that cuts through the film supports his existential crisis and turn towards nihilism, and there is no clear conclusion from the film, both literally as well as in regards to presenting a solution to climate change.

Films with a social message generally have some sort of actionable idea — acceptance in the case of Brokeback Mountain and the boycotting of SeaWorld in BlackfishFirst Reformed does not do this. Rather, it honestly depicts the issue as being out of the average person’s hands by orienting the entire film around Toller’s fruitless battle with himself and the polluting industry of his town. Ultimately the legislators are in the pockets of these polluting industries. First Reformed and its protagonist are sympathetic—he tries to understand and ask for help, tries to challenge the polluters—and there is space for a human connection with the viewer in this. After watching this film though, unlike the solutions offered in other films, First Reformed hits home more with the lack of a solution. Film can make actionable change in the world, but with an issue such as climate change it still seems out of reach. An Inconvenient Truth and many other similar documentaries engineered a change in the public mindset, but unfortunately they were decades too late, and consequently films such as First Reformed seem to sort of embrace this dread. It is one degree away from advocating for action against climate change, but instead, it focuses on the individual and the need for meaningful human relationships to traverse the unknown with, something that can be completely forgotten in our world that requires consistent action.