How cinema can become a catalyst for social change

Posted by Laura Briedis Tomko, Jan 10, 2020

While many people go to the theater to relax and be entertained after a busy day, the moviegoers at The Nightlight Cinema go there not to get away from it all—but instead are seeking community engagement.

Opened in 2014 in Akron, Ohio, this art house’s mission is to create a place where cinema and community exist in tandem. Open nightly, it provides a classy nightspot where patrons can enjoy the cinematic art form and explore new ideas as part of a thoughtful community.

Before each showing, a show leader introduces the film and talks about why it is relevant and why it was chosen. There are no agendas or biases when choosing which films to show in the theater; the purpose is simply to create dialogue and community engagement. The show leaders also multitask as bartenders, so conversations can continue after the show in the lounge and bar.

It is this type of engagement that can become a catalyst for social change.

For instance, after the screening of Inside Akron’s Tent City, a locally produced documentary that premiered at the 43rd Cleveland International Film Festival, The Nightlight Cinema added extra show dates at its theater to keep the homelessness crisis at the forefront of people’s minds.

Filmed by a local group of filmmakers, this web series details the battle in Akron over a radical but ever so human approach to homelessness. Shot on an iPhone for less than $1,000, it documents a local homeless community’s attempt to self-organize and the city government’s efforts to displace them. Juxtaposing interviews with city officials and the homeless residents of the tent community, the documentary subverts stereotypes and humanizes a marginalized portion of American society.

To provide a more intimate look at homelessness in Akron and the community’s response to it, The Nightlight Cinema hosted the film’s director and members of the crew, the executive director for The Homeless Charity and Village, and former Ohio House of Representatives member Zack Milkovich to further the discussion. The film resonated with the city in many ways and helped people empathize with those who are homeless.

“Film is the art form to create social change,” says Brittany Dobish, artistic director of The Nightlight Cinema. “You see something that excites you or enrages you while watching something outside of yourself, and that spurs you to become more engaged. Cinema has the ability to change someone’s perspective.”

As part of the microcinema movement, this cozy 46-seat cinema (a 501(c)(3) nonprofit movie theater that relies on grants, fundraisers, and concession sales to help further its mission) shows independent movies that often create a chain reaction in the community—something that can create more empathy for others and make a small impact in day-to-day life activities.