‘Forget sleaze, money and violence. Film-making should expose greatness’

Millions of people worldwide are turned off by the excessive violence, doom and negativity on TV and in films. It’s time that film-makers shone a light on the best of humanity, writes Stephen Mulhearn

As a film-maker, witnessing a movie industry obsessed with sleaze, money and violence, I vote for change. I believe in the intelligence of audiences worldwide, and know we have the power to project a more compassionate human drama.

I first became aware of the epidemic of negativity at film school. Over four years, I watched other talented film-makers opt to make films about rape, torture and murder. I chose to aim my camera at soup kitchens helping the homeless and stories of people following their dreams.

But my graduation project was marked down for ‘excessive cheer’. The film, Transcending The Storm, went on to win an Award for Excellence in Documentary Filmmaking and had a world premiere in the US. This gave me hope again that there was an audience for positive films.

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I was invited to London (my company is based in Lendrick Lodge in the wilds of Scotland) by one of Britain’s biggest TV channels, with the potential of a commission. They would pay to make the film then have the exclusive right to broadcast it. I remember standing outside the pearly gates of their headquarters, dwarfed by their giant logo. Inside, we watched scenes from my debut film and talked shop. It was looking good; I was beyond excited. Then they gave me three existing documentaries they had commissioned to view. I should create a similar style of film. And my heart sank.

My choices from which to draw inspiration were: a documentary about a place that’s popular to commit suicide, an educational institution where people were bullied to death, or a shocking film about fascism in Britain. I said that I preferred to make films about people doing remarkable things for humanity and the planet. “My vision is to expose greatness,” I said.

I was told that documentaries are expository, and should reveal the bad things happening in the world. I argued that that style of film-making was pretty well covered already. But their chequebook was closed, the door to leave opened, and the head of new documentaries finished with the words, “no one is interested in films like that”. He called someone to show me the way out.

He and others in the mainstream media are entitled to their opinions, but we must remember, they are just opinions.

I was told that documentaries are expository, and should reveal the bad things happening in the world

Our mission is to produce positive films that create hope, and excitement for living. Our greatest achievement to date? Someone bought a copy of Transcending The Storm, and visited a friend to give it as a gift. Their friend, an alcoholic, was suffering from deep depression. They knocked at her door, but on getting no answer, stuck the DVD through the letterbox. Little did they know that she was about to commit suicide. The knock on the door interrupted her. She went to the door and found and watched film – three times.

It struck a very personal chord with her. It’s a true-life story about going beyond the past and finding a more positive future. In fact, it’s my story, about trying to escape a violent and alcoholic past after finding myself on the brink of death in a Glasgow hospital. As well as insights from experts in the field of social change, it draws upon wisdom from Peruvian shamans and Native American elders. It’s a film to give hope to people trapped in addictions such as alcoholism.

The woman behind the closed door didn’t kill herself. Months later, she is sober, happy and has created a better way to live. A beautiful example of someone ‘interested in films like that’.

Arriving at Machu Picchu, Peru, to track down a shaman: a still from Transcending The Storm. Image: Seeing the Magic

It’s time to think beyond archetypical movies about a white male hero’s quest. Let’s switch off the sexual violence towards women, and homophobic adult and even children’s movies. Forget flicks that show indigenous people who can’t solve their own challenges: they don’t need to be saved by white guys with guns. We need to evolve beyond stereotypical gay or lesbian characters too. Imagine instead, more female leads and heroes; an ethnically diverse selection of characters and A-list actors. What about dramatic stories about people collaborating to make life better for the common good?

Millions of people across the world yearn for a more positive narrative. There’s never been a better time to collectively expose greatness.

Read more: Constructive criticism: three documentary films that changed the world (…and one that could)

Stephen Mulhearn 
is the creative director at film production company Seeing the Magic



This article is featured in issue 92 of Positive News magazine. Subscribe now to get the magazine delivered to your door each quarter.