Cinematography as a Tool for Political Influence


The necessity to create links with wide circles of society emerged with the establishment of first states, and for this purpose political communication came forth. Political communication has many tools but their primary purpose is to fashion certain perceptions or attitude in response to specific information.

The most widespread form of political communication is the political advertisement. History of political advertisement traces its origins from burgomasters of Ancient Rome and reaches to thousands of tools of modern Mass Media. The tools of political advertisement evolved with technological advancements and rapid change of human thought. The development period of political advertisement is likely to be the radio, photographs and wallpapers, used during the First and Second World Wars, which provided visual perception about political actors or about some event. The invention of TV opened up new opportunities for political communications, as well as for advertisement to simultaneously influence senses of sound and sight and in the meantime, to leave deeper impression. The mass media are part and parcel of citizen’s life, and politics penetrates into their lives via mass media as currently civil and political fields give them an ample opportunity to hold vis-à-vis meetings with citizens and political actors. The mass media serve as a means of transmitting information, and information, however impartial, is a message for listeners, which impacts them at emotional level.

The most widespread means of mass media: film, promotional video, cartoon and TV broadcast, have become basic means of television, in the meantime being used as tools for political influence.

If advertisement, broadcast or news may have a direct impact on citizen’s consciousness related to this or that political issue, actor, party or event, films and cartoons have indirect and not immediate impact.

The invention of the Lumiere brothers (1895) is an important part of the entertainment of modern individual. Film is a system of moving images, which is united by a common plot. Film is the only one in its form: it is acceptable for all cultures, its plot may touch many themes and modern technologies enable film ideas beyond our reality. Film is the most widespread means of modern culture. Thanks to this very opportunities and features, it becomes proper and useful tool among political technologies.

The Psychological Impact of Film on Individuals

  1. McLuhan defined film as “hot” means of Mass Media, which completely captures the senses of sight and sound and makes being identified with heroes of the film. The uniqueness of film is that it has the capability to influence lower layers of consciousness (even at the unconscious, archetype layer).

Cinematography, if programmed precisely, can be a successful tool of propaganda. It actively generalizes world’s idealized illusion in the imagination of viewers. Depending on the authors’ (director, scriptwriter) conception, films can create an impression of fairness and moral superiority of certain character, not taking into account the fact how the prototype of given character has been in reality.

But the most important feature of films, which allows them to be used as means of propaganda, is their ability to have covert, unnoticed impact on people. The influence is usually in sensual form out of the consciously manageable field, which helps to bypass rational thinking (the emergence of sensual resonance). Sensual resonance may be defined as the creation of certain mood among a wide audience, at the same time propagating certain ideas. It allows to bypass psychological protection at conscious level, which tries to protect from advertisement, propaganda and any form of brain-washing. It is here that sensual resonance is necessary, because its first rule is: “One should influence man at sensual, not at conscious level”.

As a strong socio-psychological power, film helps to get rid of tiredness of the previous day, frustration and phobia. One should not say that film helps to escape from daily problems but undoubtedly, after watching one returns to the society appeased. Sometimes it serves as an impetus for reevaluation of one’s own life, values and surrounding world. Whatever the content of the film, it can change or form certain perception or opinion starting from marriage and love to the image of government. Thus, at a subconscious level beneficial conditions are created to invest new models toward political institutions, actors, states or nations. The state, which is prone to use mechanisms of propaganda, often uses the immense influence of films on people.

The Film and the State

Truly, all films carry a set of ideas, which have an impact on people, but not all have that deliberately. Some of them carry out state order and propagate characters, values and behavior favorable to state. But in order to completely understand the impact of films it is necessary to clarify one more provision: films not always, more concretely, not often carry out state order, but their impact on people remains strong. The function of culture is not in the resolution of the issue rather than in informing the public about the existence of a given issue. As a symbol of culture and entertainment, film does have an impact on a viewer, no matter it had such goal primarily or not.

According to their plot, there are documentary and fiction films.

  • Documentary films should include “facts”, which should be “valid”. It seems like these features make documentaries valueless for political purposes, advertisement or electronic manipulation, but in spin wars they turn into best tools for inserting the image of adversary, making division between “we” and “they”. This practice has been used since the years of First World War, but has become widespread during the Cold War, when states tried to create the image of the USSR as a threatening superpower among their American and European viewers. Lenin underscored the importance of film as a political technology, Stalin said, “Film is exceptionally state art, which does not have equals in influencing the masses”.
  • Fiction films differ by their plots. Filming personnel enjoys great freedom in choosing plots.

To understand the influence of fiction films on society from political perspective it is necessary to examine them in non-democratic and democratic regimes. If in democratic social system the presence of political actors or historical and political events in a film is the result of the filming company’s choice (filming personnel: scriptwriter, director, producer), in non-democratic regimes cinematography is one of the most influential tools of propaganda, which helps to present the behavior accepted and established by ruling elite as the right model of behavior.

The Film in the USSR and Nazi Germany

In the USSR everything, which the public would read and listen, was strongly subject to literary criticism. The USSR’s ideological machine penetrated into all layers of public information, corresponding everything to the requirements of censorship.

The birth of Soviet film dates back to 1919. Regarding this, V. I. Lenin said, “Film is the most important form of culture for us”. The USSR’s state committee was created to examine cinematography, which was to adjust foreign and domestic films to the “spirit of socialism”. The process of asserting the plot of domestic films was full of bureaucratic disturbances, which resulted in small number of Soviet films (“Better fewer, but better” slogan was in practice). In the 1930s, since reinforcement of Stalin’s repressions, freedom of film content was more restricted. For example, director Eisenstein planned to make 4 films during 1924-1929, but finished only one of them (Alexander Nevsky) in 1938.

Soviet films had their exact ideological orientation, that is, to create images of perfect communist, perfect communist society, which were serving to the perfect state. From this perspective the most successful example is “Chapaev” (directors: Sergey and Grigori Vasilev, 1934), which is a striking example of socialist realism and tells about the commander of Red Army and his followers, who were fighting for revolution.

Thus, the Soviet film is unique in its type, as it was developing outside universal cinematography (including the development of technological means), it had a narrow circle for choosing characters and script, which in its turn excluded the existence of films of certain genre.

From the beginning of 1931, the entry of foreign movies in the Soviet Union was restricted. Foreign movies, which were to be broadcasted, were subject to meticulous examination. When necessary, they were shortened (Lindsay Anderson’s “О Lucky Man!” film was shortened to 45 minutes). After Stalin’s death the situation changed a little bit. The number of filming genres proliferated (drama, comedy), however, cinematography was remaining under absolute state control. In the USSR those films were mainly shown, which were made in the Soviet republics (around 140 films annually) or the films of countries belonging to the communist bloc (70), after which the Italian and French films (70) were preferable, the number of American films fluctuated from 5 to 7, which were to be approved by the aforementioned committee to avoid the penetration of such films as “Rocky” or “Godfather” into the Soviet film market.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union the abovementioned committee continued its activity till 2008, but only within the Russian Federation.

In the course of the Second World War under the aegis of German government film series was made, both documentary and fiction, which propagated the policy of the Third Reich: the incomparability, perfection of the Arian race, the most striking example of which is «Ich Klage an» (“I Accuse”, director: Wolfgang Liebeneiner) the aim of which was to show the legitimacy of euthanasia.

The political influence of Hollywood films

In democratic societies film is not subject to state control and is free in choosing plots, content and in presentation of ideology. But this does not bother a state to zero in on a film and use it as a political tool. Let us discuss the examples of Hollywood films.

In the 1930s Federal Bureau of Investigation established a subdivision specialized in the industry of entertainment, because employees understood that people perceive information via culture. In 1947 such subdivision was established in the Department of Defense (Pentagon), in 1996- in the Central Intelligence Agency. The incumbent director of the CIA, John Brendon, says that during hard periods citizens get information about the work of government from Pop culture. To substantiate the aforementioned, let us bring the example of the film, where Pentagon has its contribution. The magazine “Wired” one of its numbers  explains why that subdivisions are necessary. Thus, Pentagon “helped” to somehow change the plot of “Transformers” (director: Michael Bay, 2007): soldiers and state officers are presented as positive characters, instead, the filming personnel got an opportunity to hire military technology with a cheaper price (Stealth aircraft-24 thousand USD an hour).

To understand the US influence on Hollywood let us consider two periods.

  • After the Second World War (1946-1991) in American movies the USSR was presented as the world’s evil. The best example of such movies is “Rambo” movie series, which was one of the Cold War’s weapons.
  • But in cinematography absolutely opposite picture was in 1943-1945 (at that time the USSR and the USA were allies). In the movies of this period citizens of the USSR are presented as heroes. The most popular movie, which was filmed during this period and demonstrates the USSR-USA amicable relationship, is “Mission to Moscow” (director: Michael Curtiz). It was based on the book written by the US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies. But in 1947 the US Congress charged the movie’s filming personnel with spreading the Soviet ideology and conducting anti-American activity.

The spread of the Soviet ideology was not encouraged in the USA. This fear forced to include one of the best Hollywood scriptwriters, Dalton Trumbo (scriptwriter of the “Roman Holiday” and “Spartacus”, winner of Oscar), in the black list of scriptwriters merely because he was a member of the Communist party.

After September 11, 2001 the US Government decided to use cinematography to have a proper influence on its citizens and as a consequence the advisor to George Bush, Karl Rove, arrived in Hollywood and held a meeting with producers and scriptwriters to ask their support for spreading certain ideas. They were:

o   Fight against terrorism is not a fight against Islam.

o   There is a need for military recruitment.

o   Families of soldiers need help.

o   Persuade the society that they live in security.

The index of the American movies’ politicization is considered to be the American Academy Awards, Oscar, because the most “politicized” movies are nominated to attach more attention. (“Mission to Moscow” was nominated in 1944, “Rocky” in 1976. The most politicized Hollywood year was 2013, when movies on political themes were on screen and later nominated, for example, “Lincoln” (director:  Steven Spielberg, 2012), “Argo” (director: Ben Affleck, 2012), “Zero Dark Thirty”(director: Kathrin Bigelow, 2012).

Scientist Michael Pawls conducted a significant sociological survey among 39 students: the influence of “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” before and after watching, in which the following questions were asked: Does the government guide the people in a right way?, Do  you trust the government?

The survey showed that after watching the movies the trust toward government increased in the eyes of students.




From this, one can conclude that in politics one of the most important functions is the communication with people, which is organized via informational impulses. In the information era it reaches to people through various channels which are divergent and sometimes contradicting. Therefore, except for direct means of influence, cinematography is important as indirect means of influence, because the potential of its influence is bigger and stronger than the potential of other channels known to the people.

The research revealed that political powers can use film as a tool for manipulation. But the influence of films is not limited to intentional usage by political powers, it can have influence on people, regardless of authorities’ intrinsic motives, not losing the validity of leverages of influence.


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Author: Tatev Derzyan© All rights are reserved.

Translator:  Sona Aramyan