Published on July 10, 2019
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you make them feel.” Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou’s quote encapsulates the importance of emotion in communication. If you can make your audience feel something – to relate to a situation or empathise with a predicament – then you are on the right path.
Storytellers have used this to their advantage for centuries, and today’s filmmakers combine that knowledge with artistry and technological ingenuity to tell stories that connect with us on a deeply emotional level.
Stress, Trust, Empowerment and Passion are four of the most powerful emotions that influence human behaviour. So it’s perhaps not surprising that these emotions are used time and again as central themes in some of our most celebrated movies.
Here are some of my favourite examples…
Stress – Black Swan (2010)
Black Swan is a psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky and stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a brilliant young ballerina who cracks under intense emotional and physical stress as she strives for perfection as the lead in Tchaikovsky's ‘Swan Lake’.
The director plays on Nina’s increasing emotional instability by inviting the audience to see the world through her eyes as she embarks on a rollercoaster journey of transformation and self-discovery that ultimately leads to her complete breakdown and psychosis.
This starts with us “following” Nina through the lens of a shaky, hand-held camera that, coupled with a deliberately dark soundtrack, evokes an almost instant sense of paranoia. This progresses into subtle delusions that make us question what is real and what isn’t, before finally descending into full-on schizophrenic hallucinations as Nina is so overwhelmed by the stress of becoming the black swan, she appears to develop webbed feet, scaly legs and feathers.
The film is as beautiful as it is unsettling, and certainly not for the faint-hearted, but above all, it is a wonderful example of darkly emotive storytelling.
Trust – Finding Nemo (2003)
Pixar are the dons of emotive storytelling and, Finding Nemo, like much of their back catalogue, is full of familiar themes.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a little clownfish called Nemo that goes missing one day, and his father, Marlin’s epic struggle to find him and bring him home.
It’s Marlin’s lack of trust in Nemo that leads to the adventure. Along the way, Marlin begins to realise that he needs to learn to put his trust in others if he is going to succeed.
This culminates in a scene where Marlin and his scatterbrain sidekick, Dory are trapped inside the mouth of a humpback whale. As the whale’s mouth empties of water, it bellows a sound which Dory interprets as a request to move to the back of the throat. Dory pleads with Marlin to do as the whale says but Marlin, who up until this point hasn’t trusted Dory at all, hangs on for dear life.
It’s a literal leap of faith and Marlin must decide if he’s prepared to take it on. It’s a perfect metaphor for how trust works in that you can only truly benefit from it if you are willing to let go.
Finally, Marlin lets go, and everything is alright, just as Dory promised.
Now, given Pixar films are aimed primarily at children, it isn’t the most subtle of subtexts, but that doesn’t make it any less evocative.
Empowerment – Hidden Figures (2016)
Hidden Figures follows the true story of three black American women (Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson) who played an integral role in many of NASA’s first space missions.
The women have to overcome sexism and racism to take up pivotal positions within the organisation and that alone is incredibly empowering, especially for anyone that has felt marginalised by their gender, race or sexuality.
Sadly one of the most empowering moments in the movie isn’t factually correct, but it is a great piece of emotive storytelling all the same.
Maths genius Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, is transferred to a new building, where there are no bathrooms for black women. So every time nature calls, she has to run across the campus to a building with a “coloured” bathroom.
Her white boss, played by Kevin Costner, discovers this only when Johnson returns to her desk from a bathroom break, drenched after running for half an hour in the rain. Aghast that one of his most brilliant employees is being denied a basic right because of her colour, he picks up a crowbar, heads to the bathroom, and smashes the “coloured” ladies room sign. Then, as a crowd of black women look on, he delivers a powerful, funny rejection of Jim Crow segregation: “No more coloured restrooms. No more white restrooms…. Here at NASA, we all pee the same colour.”
It’s a great example of the importance of empowerment in the workplace and the difference that leaders can make by doing all they can to provide their employees with whatever they need to succeed.
Passion – Dead Poets Society (1989)
Dead Poets Society is set in 1959 at the fictional elite conservative Vermont boarding school Welton Academy, it tells the story of John Keating, an English teacher played by Robin Williams who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry.
In his earliest lessons at Welton, Keating underlines a concept that lies at the core of any fruitful rebellion against conformity: passion. A good life, he argues, is a passionate life, lived according to the individual’s unique talents and interests. Discovering one’s own unique talents, he implies, can take a lifetime—but doing so is inherently worthwhile because it yields true, fulfilling happiness.
By the same token, Keating suggests that the lives of many adults are unsatisfying because they lack any true passion: people go through life without feeling love, whether for art, work, or other people.
His own passion is never more evident than when he talks about poetry for the first time. “We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
These are all great examples of how emotive storytelling can leave a lasting impression. If you’re interested in discussing how you can make your own story more emotive, STEP this way.