I first saw an unfinished cut of the film “And The King Said, What a Fantastic Machine” a year ago at a work-in-progress screening at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). At that time the movie didn’t even have a name, but it sure made an impression on me.
Seen in its finished form this year as part of the festival’s FutureWave program (for youth ages 13-21), the impression was even stronger.
The 88-minute documentary tries to tackle the whole history of the camera – with an emphasis on moving pictures – and what it’s done to our society. It invites viewers to examine and more deeply understand the images that flood their lives and influence their decisions. As a co-parent of two now-adult kids, I’m glad SIFF is working to get the film in front of local high schoolers.
A critical message
It’s quite the rollercoaster ride. It grabs you by avoiding talking heads, relying instead on a stunning array of images – both still and moving – from 200 years and 45 billion cameras to paint the story: The captured image, so often manipulated, is changing us. It has changed how we think and act. It’s impeding our ability to tell reality from fiction. This is media literacy at its most engaging – and even shocking.
The power of film
The film strikingly illustrates the power of the image to captivate the viewer – for good and evil. At one point images of bodies being dragged out of mass graves in World War II fill the screen. The film explains how this footage was shot to ensure that deniers couldn’t say it was faked. No edits, famous people are clearly visible amidst the carnage. This is film as bullet-proof evidence, as indisputable fact in history. A noble endeavor.
Flash forward a few decades and the film presents us with a TV station executive who unrepentantly explains that his sole job is to soften up minds for Coca-Cola so they can sell more soft drinks. Another few decades and we see a girl dangle from a skyscraper, the only thing keeping her from falling to her death is a hand gripping her forearm. For what? A snapshot in search of likes on social media. Film has strayed from the quest for truth to the quest for profit.
Not only the viewer but also the filmmaker may be captured. One of the most stunning sequences in the film features Leni Riefenstahl, spinmeister extraordinaire for the Nazis, lovingly describing how she crafted her films to inspire its viewers. Her pride in making such powerful work is on full display. She claims to be apolitical but has clearly been captured by her creation – and seems completely blind to the ramifications it has had on the real world.
Such imagery demands discussion.
Happily, the film is coming to a 9th-grade classroom near you. Or it should be.
Bringing the discussion to schools
SIFF Education Manager Megan Garbayo-López, film directors Axel Danielson and Max Van Aertryck, and film producer Kathleen McInnis recently screened the finished movie for students at Ballard High School and Seattle University. Post-screening conversation went deep, says Garbayo-López, as young people explored both the impact of photography on world events and the personal impacts of image overload in their lives today.
Garbayo-López says exposing youth to photography’s history – and illustrating how this technology has been used to dictate what people should think, how they should feel about themselves, and what it means to succeed – can help them become critical discerners in a world of largely unchecked mass media.
SIFF is committed to bringing this film to schools in Seattle year-round and Garbayo-López says says it is starting with the production and media literacy program at Pacific Middle School in the Highline School District. She is creating a conversation guide for students and teachers to use after they watch the film “to keep them thinking about things in a more thoughtful and critical way.”
Teaching kids to question what they see
“I think it’s a really important time to get them started in critically thinking and questioning what happens when the camera’s off, what’s happening on the other side of the camera,” Garbayo-López says.
“My ultimate dream would be that every ninth grader in Washington state watches this film,” she says.
That dream isn’t pulled out of thin air. “And the King Said, What a Fantastic Machine” has become part of Sweden’s national public education curriculum.
Sweden has it right
I hope schools here and around our country follow Sweden’s lead. Put this film in the classroom. It belongs there alongside the rest of the history curriculum. A visceral awareness of the moral danger of media manipulation may be just the thing to inoculate our children against the easy seductiveness of garnering likes through sensational posts on social media.
The film will be available for home streaming in the future. See it. Talk about it with your children. The world may be better for it.