The Power of Satire in Filmmaking

Dictionary.com defines satire as

  1. the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, or the like, in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.
  2. a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.
  3. a literary genre comprising such compositions.

For years it’s been used in art to powerfully convey messages to audiences that for whatever reason might receive the message better when presented in satirical form. While a freshman at Cal Berkeley (go Bears!) I took an English lit and composition class where I wrote an essay about the need to round up everyone with AIDS in San Francisco and create a special colony for them on Angel Island. I gave facts and figures to back up my thesis. It was a satire inspired by a similar medieval satirical essay about how to deal with the growing population of plague victims.

Satirical Filmmaking to Convey a Message

Filmmakers have been using satire since the days of Charlie Chaplain. Some of my favorite satirical films are Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap, Robert Altman’s The Player, and Christopher Guest’s The Big Picture. (If you’ve every attended film school and/or tried to make it in Hollywood, I highly recommend you watch this 1989 gem starring Mr. Six Degrees himself, Kevin Bacon).

Film already is a powerful medium, but when combined with satire it packs an even more powerful punch to get your or your client’s message across. One of the funniest satire’s I’ve seen lately was done by YouTube sensation Julian Smith.

Julian has been producing comedy film sketches for years, but he skyrocketed to fame in early 2009 when his YouTube hit “25 Things I Hate about Facebook” exploded to millions of views. Since then he’s moved from Nashville, TN to Hollywood, got an agent, and produces videos that regularly get hundreds of thousands of views. He stirred up a bit of controversy a few weeks ago when he posted this hilarious video “Pre-blessed Food.”

In my opinion, there are three key things required to make a satirical film effective in conveying a message. Let’s dissect this video and see why it works so well as such:

  1. Must be Over the Top: I think it’s imperative for a satirical “message” film to be “over the top.” That is to say, it needs to either express an extreme point of view that seems to go against the accepted standards of society, and/or, the execution of the message needs to be overly dramatic, comedic, etc. I think it’s safe to say that buying pre-blessed food is pretty over the top.
  2. Strong Irony: technically, satire can just be heavily sarcastic. But to be an effective tool to convey a message, I think irony needs to be the key ingredient. The literal message of the film needs to be diametrically opposed to the actual message the filmmaker is trying to convey. In this case, Julian is making a commentary on both the commercialization in the modern day church, as well as the real importance or prayer.
  3. Addresses a Real Issue: lastly, a message-driven satire is only as powerful as the problem it addresses. No one would really be moved by a satire on the life of Mother Theresa. Such a film would be lost on people. What would be the point? However, the issues that Julian addresses here are real issues the church is dealing with: professed Christians who are so busy in their daily lives that they don’t take the time to do one of the main things their faith calls them to do: pray.

Be Prepared to Take the Heat

It goes without saying that if you make a provocative film (and satires are by definition provocative), you can expect to get some heat for it. Julian certainly did. The overwhelming majority of people who saw the video loved it. Most Christians got the joke. However, there were a number of Christians who were actually offended by it and commented as much. (Hmmm? Kind of reminds me of this issue). The kick here is that Julian is a Christian (he used to work on staff of a large Nashville church). Enough people commented about it where Julian felt compelled to respond and “explain the joke” and set people’s minds at ease. But the truth is, even if someone gets that it’s a satire, they still may be offended. (To this day Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is debated over whether or not it’s excessive use of the “N” word makes it racist, or is it Twain delivering a strong satirical commentary about the day?)

Satirical films can be a powerful medium to mobilize people, generate necessary debate, or encourage provocative thought. What are some of your favorite satires and why?

By the way, in case you were wondering, I got an A- on that college essay.