Often in my role as President of the International Storytelling Center, I get asked, “Have you read this book?” “Do you know this folktale?” “What do you think of this particular publication or this particular article?” And I don’t know, because, truthfully, I don’t read much. I think in people’s minds, storytelling is most strongly connected with writing, even though narrative is also at the heart of so many of the fine arts. We hear people’s stories in the lyrics of songs, imagine dramatic scenes from history when we look at paintings, and feel the powerful emotions of a choreographer when we watch a dance. But still, a lot of people think of stories as something you read.
It’s always been different for me. When I was a kid, I didn’t read a lot of books. Later I found out I was dyslexic, which explained a lot. But back then, all I knew was that instead of staying up late reading comics or science fiction stories, I liked to watch moves on the little TV set in my bedroom. I’d watch them all through the night sometimes. All different kinds. Over the years I’ve watched so many films, so that’s been a huge influence for me. And it has really shaped the way I think about and advocate for the folk art of storytelling.
There are certain kinds of movies that I think people connect more with storytelling. With documentaries, for instance, many filmmakers talk about themselves as storytellers. In collaboration with our friends at ETSU, ISC recently screened a series of silent film shorts about the Appalachian region. Granted, the connection to oral tradition there may not seem as obvious! But I promise you they’re there.
One of our goals here at the Center is to preserve and share traditional stories from all over the world, but because of where we are, Appalachian culture and history have obviously been very important to us. We want to share and preserve and protect the stories of the past. But we’re also interested in reinterpreting and re-contextualizing those stories for a modern audience, to help us understand the failings and limitations of the past. To learn from those failures and apply the lessons to the present day.
I’ll give you two quick examples that relate to ISC’s recent film screening. Historically, silent films were accompanied by live music when they were shown in the cinema. But in the time of silent movies, that music was often classical. Our event organizers took a different approach, with bluegrass music that’s more closely connected to the content of the films. It’s worth considering in what ways that made the experience more or less authentic. How was the experience different from that of the audience the film had in its own time? And does that change the way we saw the film itself?
Before the event, I found myself thinking about the opening scene in “Watchmen,” the show that was recently on HBO. The series was reimagining the story of the classic comic book from the 1980s. The original comic reimagined characters from other comics in a way that was transformative in that industry. There are all these different layers of context, and with each one the story stays the same in some ways and changes radically in others. The opening scene of the show is a harrowing look at the Tulsa Race Massacre, one of the worst or maybe the worst incidents of racist violence in this nation’s history. This was a real thing that happened in Oklahoma in 1921. On the show, the boy is watching a silent movie in a theater as his mother plays the piano. As the violence worsens outside the theater and the mother grows more upset, the music becomes broken and dissonant. She can barely play the notes because she is so afraid. Her music tells a story, moving from a jaunty backdrop for the film to an intimate portrait of her own emotional upheaval, which she’s trying to hide from her scared little boy. It’s a very powerful scene.
The elephant in the room that night was the legacy of D.W. Griffith, the filmmaker whose work was being shown. His most famous film, The Birth of a Nation, was controversial even in its own time. Its depiction of the KKK as heroes, white actors in blackface, and harmful stereotypes spawned protests, but it was still a booming commercial success. The film even inspired the real-life rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. So as we watched these representations of Appalachian life, we were asked to remember its source, and that we were seeing that world through a very particular set of eyes.
Griffith was a privileged man, and one of his privileges was that he got to tell other people’s stories. Who gets to tell the story is an issue that has come to the forefront for us here at the International Storytelling Center. We recently launched a big new initiative, Freedom Stories, to center the stories of African Americans in Appalachia. These are stories that have been neglected, in their own time and also ever since. One of our goals is to not abandon the stories we know, but to recognize their flaws and limitations. In storytelling, we’ve had a tendency to preserve stories that are bright and celebratory, whereas many of these stories are horribly grim representations of injustice. We need to be able to explore stories that are uncomfortable and unflattering – a conversation that’s important not just in Appalachia, but across the country. I think it’s part of a broader reckoning we’re seeing in the culture right now, with movements like Black Lives Matter and Me Too. These conversations about representation aren’t just happening in classrooms, but on the street and in the highest echelons of culture as we examine questions like who gets nominated for Oscars – and, more importantly, why.
In watching the films, I was struck by how much they reminded me of Bollywood movies I watched – or was made to watch – as a kid. The expressive gestures. The drama. Everything’s over the top and larger than life. But it was also rooted in something real. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I went to India for the first time with my mother to spend time with her family. It seemed like there was only one TV in the village, and it was in our living room. We’d watch these Bollywood films, which were three to six hours long, by the way. As the cast of the film sang and danced, some of the kids played on the veranda, and people were in the kitchen cooking. It was unlike what we were seeing on the screen yet completely inseparable from it, because these movies formed a backdrop to daily life.
Film is a powerful medium, and throughout my own life it has fed my imagination, sparked ideas, and fueled my sense of wonder about the world. I love to see how different people live. I love seeing different sides of the story. I love seeing worlds that never existed, and seeing bits of my own life in the story. But it’s just as important, as we watch, to interrogate how the story is being told, and by whom.
Just for fun, I thought I’d include my personal Top Ten list of my favorite films that have been most influential in my life.
10. The Ten Commandments (1956)
When I was a kid in England, we had three channels: BBC One, BBC Two, and Channel Three. So when a film came on and you either watched it then or you didn’t watch it at all. One day, when I was with my grandmother, this movie (with Charlton Heston!) came on. It was in Technicolor, so I was entranced. I’ve always loved those epic movies, with the cinematography, the music. My grandma, in her wisdom, made me sit down and watch it with her even though she couldn’t speak English. She could understand it a bit, but that wasn’t the point. Even though she was a traditional Sikh woman and this was a Judeo-Christian story, she knew it was important because it had to do with faith, connection, spirituality, and freedom from oppression. In a way it was like her own stories from the Freedom Struggle Movement in India, in which she took part.
9. Star Wars (1977)
Growing up as a kid, every Christmas, and even still to this day, we got to watch Star Wars. I always wanted to be an Ewok. (I still want to be an Ewok!) Here was Luke, a young kid that was growing up in a regular family. Something dramatic happened, he learned from a master, he went on a journey, and he overcame struggles and his personal demons. He took on this large empire and became a champion. This is all part of what Joseph Campbell lays out in The Hero’s Journey.
8. Gandhi (1982)
I was about six years old when I saw it. I remember going to the cinema in my hometown in England, and it was completely empty. My family and I sat at the back of this empty movie theatre watching this epic film by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley. (For many, many years, I thought Ben Kingsley was Indian. I had no idea he was British!) Here I was watching Gandhi, set in India, a place that was so much a part of my story, too. A part of my grandma’s stories, stories of our heritage and the struggle for independence. I could connect these ideas from the film and my life, seeing this place in India where thousands of Sikhs were massacred by the British army, and knowing the person who avenged those deaths was my grandfather’s best friend, Bhagat Singh, the great Freedom Fighter of India. I remember seeing this movie thinking, “That’s the land that I come from.” I had family connections there, but I had yet to visit. This was a movie that has stayed with me throughout my life, particularly in the context of what’s happening today, and how India in perceived and how it is almost on the brink of another revolt or uprising.
7. The Bandits (2001)
When I was young, I grew up on a small cul-de-sac street in south England. I remember my dad building this shelf unit in my bedroom, and me thinking, “What’s he doing?” Next thing I know, he puts this TV on it, which I thought was amazing. The first thing I watched that evening was The Bandits. It was late at night, and that movie just took me away.
6. Bollywood films
I already told you about those.
5. In the Name of the Father (1993)
I clearly remember watching this movie, which stars Daniel Day Lewis. It’s about injustice. Watching that storyline was transformative because it wasn’t a fictional—it was true. It really happened. This movie helped me empathize and see there was a different side to the story I thought I knew about Northern Ireland, and it wasn’t necessarily the story I had been told growing up. It also showed me the power of how stories can be told on the screen; they can really draw you in and pull on your emotions. They can have a powerful impact.
4. Cannonball Run (1981) and 3. Purple Rain (1984)
I remember seeing Cannonball Run when it came out. What we would do was go into the theater, watch the movie, and then stay put to watch it again. It felt like we were getting double for the price of our tickets, and we could stay in the movie theater so we did. We watched Cannonball Run the first time around—it was great, it was funny, we laugh about it today—but during the second run, I had to go to the bathroom. When I was walking back to our theater, I saw another movie was showing in a different theater. I snuck in. I was curious to see what a movie that was rated for people over 18 would be like. I sat at the back, just for a bit, and watched a few minutes of Purple Rain. Prince had his big, curly hair and he was riding a motorcycle, and the music was fantastic. I was totally into this movie. I didn’t watch the whole of Purple Rain just then, but of course I have since.
2. Blade Runner (1982)
Blade Runner is one of those films that really stands the test of time. I love those: the films you first watch as a kid and when you watch them again as an adult, remain incredible movies. I think you don’t necessarily know it’s a good movie when you watch it. Years after Blade Runner, I was still thinking about the characters, the story, and the music. I still wonder what the ending was supposed to mean. That’s the mark of great film and great storytelling, for me: it makes you think. It doesn’t let you off easy.
1. Silent films
Silent movies are actually my favorite genre. There’s something about a silent film that’s almost like a dance. When your mind is being forced to reinterpret the multiple meanings that can come from gesture and facial expression and nuance, then the film takes on specific meaning for each individual viewer. These movies are of a particular time when there wasn’t sound or music or score, but the filmmakers knew the power of the screen nonetheless to present ideas of place and character. Filmmakers knew the power of this brand-new medium to tell a story for people to engage with and experience. It didn’t matter that they were basically creating an industry on the fly and making it all up as they went along. The power of the story was what mattered.