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The Power of Movies

Ellen Summerfield, an intercultural film specialist, shares with Culturosity readers the advantages and dangers of films in helping us understand and learn about other cultures.

Film Can…

But Film Can Also…

Increase our knowledge about our own and other cultures

Misinform, distort, and lie

Raise awareness; awaken interest in and curiosity about our own and other cultures

Provide superficial experiences

Allow us to “experience” other cultures

Provide superficial experiences

Enhance our cross-cultural skills (e.g. empathy, listening, mindfulness)

Cause us to fear, dislike, or minimize human differences

Develop critical thinking

Oversimplify; lull critical skills

Develop media literacy

Encourage passive reception

Speak to and evoke emotions


Make communication patters (verbal and nonverbal) visible

Perpetuate negative patterns of communication

Make intercultural concepts visible (e.g. culture shock, assimilation)

Trivialize or domesticate human differences

Make visible and challenge our values; reduce ethnocentrism

Reinforce ethnocentrism

Bring to light multiple perspectives

Reinforce a single perspective

Give voice to the voiceless; allow new voices to be heard

Establish the “voice of authority”

Expose and undo stereotypes

Create or reinforce stereotypes

Give us permission to talk about sensitive and controversial issues; create common basis for discussion

Cause a dispute or blow-up: create hard feelings; cause us to feel hurt / offended/ angry

Reveal our common humanity; create bonds

Incite fear and hatred; reinforce notions of “enemy”

Create hope

Create feelings of hopelessness

Provide positive role models

Provide negative role models

Advocate for peace and justice; promote responsible action

Cause us to feel immobilized; promote irresponsible action

Leave lasting positive images

Leave lasting negative images


Do the films you watch generally fall on the left or right side of this chart? Look for films that will create a positive experience and allow you to grow and prosper. After you see a film, compare it to this list. If you find a movie has left you with negative messages, reinforced stereotypes you have, or presented a single viewpoint, be weary of taking its message to heart.


Ellen Summerfield has served for nearly thirty years as a faculty member and administrator in international education at three institutions—Middlebury College, Kalamazoo College, and Linfield College. She received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut. Her books include Crossing Cultures through Film, Survival Kit for Multicultural Living, and Seeing the Big Picture: Exploring American Cultures on Film (co-authored with Sandra Lee). She speaks German, rusty French, and passable Spanish. She recently retired from her position as Director of International Programs at Linfield to become an independent consultant, facilitator, and researcher—and she has become interested in teaching classes online, including intercultural communication.

 This article may be reprinted with the author’s permission. Please contact us with reprinting requests.

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