Activist Winter Viewing List—2018

Emmeline Pankhurst is one of the historical figures who are portrayed in "Suffragette"

As winter approaches, many people will be spending more time indoors.  The holiday season also means, for some, more social time with family and friends.  In the fine tradition of Genevieve Cottraux‘s Humane Summer Reading List, here are three films that activists may enjoy checking out from their local libraries and sharing with family and friends.

Some caveats

Engaging in full-scale literary criticism with respect to these films would be enjoyable.  However, in the interest of avoiding any plot spoilers, the below comments will remain general, vague, conclusory, and brief. 

All of these films involve individuals faced with a power structure that seeks to impose or preserve a certain worldview.  This power structure relies on, among other things, violence, defamation, and intimidation, and these films depict such scenes. 

Many different forms of resistance are shown in these films.  A given activist may agree with the goal—such as legal equality for women—without agreeing with the means that a given character chooses.  With those warnings in place, here are some films that may inspire and inform activists.

The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner (2017) (nominated for Best Animated Feature Film (Academy Awards) and Best Motion Picture: Animated (Golden Globes)) is an inspiring story that primarily follows one girl’s adaptation and, ultimately, resistance to life under an oppressive, violent regime, one that is particularly oppressive toward women.  Excellent animation choices serve to create powerful and distinct embodiments of the two worlds in which this tale is told.  This approach establishes a clear demarcation between reality and fantasy and also provides some welcome relief from an otherwise harsh setting.  The interplay between the main protagonist and her friend, the quiet moments of family life, and other aspects of human relationships shown in this film are quite endearing, particularly in light of the characters’ external circumstances.  The voiceover work is particularly noteworthy throughout the film, and the voiceover artist (Saara Chaudry) who voiced the part of the main protagonist won the ACTRA Toronto Award for Outstanding Performance: Voice.

What activists may want to look for.  There are multiple ways to survive, resist, and overcome.  The lead character learns from others’ forms of resistance and also, through her own personal determination and resilience, inspires others to take up their own forms of resistance.  That resistance, however, may be external—overt acts that the world can easily see—but may also be covert or almost entirely internal.


Suffragette (2015) (winner, Best British Film (Empire Awards)).  This historical-fiction film primarily follows an activist’s self-sacrifice and perseverance as she—along with other indomitable activists—participates in the U.K. “Votes for Women” movement.  This movement was ultimately successful, as women in the U.K. gained the vote in the years following the events shown in this film, but only after a very difficult struggle in which many women activists were subjected to extreme physical abuse.  While the particular protagonist is fictional, historical events and persons appear in the story.  The acting performances are excellent.

What activists may want to look for.  History is a playbook.  One can extract lessons from that playbook and apply those lessons in one’s own activism work.  Or one can ignore these lessons and thus repeat all the same mistakes that one’s predecessors made.  A film such as Suffragette offers not only a new appreciation for what happened historically but also insights that are fully applicable today.  Meanwhile, simply appreciating the sacrifices of previous generations for rights that we sometimes take for granted today can be a fruitful experience.

Emmeline Pankhurst is one of the historical figures who are portrayed in "Suffragette"
Emmeline Pankhurst is one of the historical figures who are portrayed in “Suffragette”


Chocolat (2000) (nominated for Best Picture (Academy Awards)) depicts the transformative effect that one woman’s self-confidence, self-reliance, and concern for others has on a closed, provincial town.  The film moves from moments of light-heartedness and visual delight to moments in which harsh subject matter is shown.  Several characters undergo personal transformation.  Their stories are intertwined and interdependent, but each person’s growth is also unique to the particular details of that individual character’s life and circumstances.  This multiplicity of personal story arcs makes Chocolat a film that can be watched over and over again.  All four of the primary four adult female roles are performed extremely well.

What activists may want to look for.  This film may be an excellent depiction of Gandhi’s exhortation—frequently quoted but perhaps less commonly studied or practiced—to be the change.  The main protagonist inspires not only through her words and visible actions but also through her living the values she espouses.  At some level, her personal character—her being—is her message.  This film also shows the sort of “candle effect” that one person can have, as changes passes through a community:  when one candle lights a second candle, that second candle can go on to light a third….

Closing thought

These three films, taken together, represent what may be a regarded as an “activist’s palette.”  They speak to different planes at which change takes place.  The Breadwinner looks at some of the most essential and fundamental steps that one can take in one’s personal life to resist oppression, even if one does not (yet) have the tools or access to make society-wide change.  Suffragette, meanwhile, consciously and directly engages at this grand, society-wide scale.  Finally, Chocolat shows transformation of a community, not through a legislative act like that sought in Suffragette, but through personal contact, communication, and the testimony of one’s own example.

Animals in film
Image from Pixabay