Using Film To Teach Business Ethics

I use three films in teaching business ethics, The Apartment, Cinema Paradiso, and Sabrina (the original with Bogart) (What! You think I’m crazy enough to use the Harrison Ford version?).

A thoroughly excellent question might be raised by this. “Why, Mr. Pilant, do you use commercial films instead of documentaries or teaching films from your school’s underused library?”

My response, “They don’t work, that’s why.”

Watch the reaction of your class when you announce the title of the latest exciting documentary you have found. You will note that a proportion of the class have immediately decided that the CIA had found some new interesting way of failing to extract useful information but you’re going to try it out on them anyway. The rest of the class is glad they don’t have to do any work. Strangely enough, watching films is very difficult once you realize it is an active form of study requiring training and experience, but they don’t know that and wouldn’t believe you if you told them.

So, you have lost half the battle right there.

If the film is any way (down to the microscopic) controversial, a good part of your students will ignore or marginalize the message. But what if you have a great success, what if the class cries in unison, demands action and stops after class to tell you how great it all was. You didn’t do to well on that one either. People are embarassed about their shows of emotion, their passion dies away and that letter they were going to write isn’t going to be written. You gave them the same heart tingling experience of good cone of ice cream.

So, it is time for you to argue that if documentaries don’t work, that people tune them out, etc., why can’t they do the same thing with your academy award winning crap? Because they can’t.

They can’t tune them out. The wonderful thing about great films (and when I mean great, I mean the top of the top, the top 100, the absolute best) is you can’t ignore them. They get you down where you live. When your classroom watches a documentary, you can always pick out students who are going through it objecting to this, disregarding that. They are not going to let that film just do its work. They feel obligated by their politics or whatever to make sure that it doesn’t affect them.

A great film captivates. It pulls in the attention. I’ve seen it multiple times. All the students in the class with the same expression watching the same film.

Sometimes, it’s surprising. One of my most difficult decisions was whether or not to use Cinema Paradiso. The film has two choices of spoken language, French or Italian, so I have to use a subtitled film in class. In America, the phrase “foreign film” or the even deadlier phrase “not in English'” are usually enough to stop people from watching the film in the first place.  Because the class is used to my strange ways, when I tell them I am going to use a subtitled film, any objections are quickly murmured in the back of the class. (They have gotten to used to situations in which I explain something they know couldn’t possible be true or make any sense and then I make it work. It disturbs them.)

So, I show the film. At first, there is not the strong attention I get when I show one of my English speaking films but after  the scene where the Catholic Priest is removing all the kissing scenes from the town’s movies, they are caught and they never escape.

Film is not a logical medium. It goes around the frontal lobes and lodges its message in the emotional parts of our thinking like a cleverly thrown curve ball. So, my use of outrage producing or factual documentary material throws a few facts their way which will quickly be disregarded or forgotten. I have noted in my own life that if I read a book about the Spartans, I retain far more information and make far more observations than I do from the History Channel’s documentary.

Besides I want to change my student’s way of thinking and improve their methods of observation when watching films and television.

What’s more, I want to introduce controversial subject to them without running into the immediate rejection ideas usually get.

So, how to do it? Films. No just any films, but masterpieces, films that have resonated with audiences for many years. Why those? Because these films have demonstrated a staying power which indicates they have connected with our unconscious in some manner. Now generally speaking, we believe we like certain films because of the actors, the kind of film (Western, etc.) and because our friends told us we had to see it. Those are most of the films we see. But the ones we remember, the ones that play with our heads, the ones we think about, often years later, have an appeal to our whole mind, not just the conscious stuff (which for many people isn’t that a big a deal anyway) (Okay, look, if you spend your life slavishly duplicating the actions of your neighbors, doing all the things you are supposed to do and avoiding any difficult decisions especially moral and ethical ones, the only difference between you and a corpse is that your status is not properly defined.) I use those films.

The unconscious is where the action is. Consciousness is nice, don’t get me wrong. I try to spend a lot of time there. Nevertheless, many of my decisions (more than I like to think) and most of my emotions emerge from the depths of the mind, not the top.

So, to change my students way of thinking as painlessly as possible for them and me, I use films. Now don’t think for a moment that we do not discuss the logical, moral implications of the film. We do. There is a cerebral frontal cortex appealing part of the class. But reaching behind that is more important.

Look at the three films. What are the messages? The one message they have in common is that humanity is more important than business success. But in particular –

The Apartment – Love is more important than success.

Cinema Paradiso – Film can fill your life with wonder that morphs into action.

Sabrina – We can change.

Now, take a look at my students. (Obviously, this is a majority of my students, not all, but see how many you think reject all three of these.) 1. I’m going to have a meaningful emotional life just as soon as I have enough money(or I get the right job or after my education or after I move). 2. Films and television are just films and televisions. I am too smart, too clever, too worldly wise for my actions to be influenced. (The unexamined life.) 3. I can totally completely change my life anytime I feel like it. I have total free will. Now, salary wise and where I live, I’m stuck but my point of view and how I live, if I want to change, I can. (And on number 3, let me point out that I get to stand at the top of the classroom and observe them and their bullet and bombproof self concepts day after day.) Continuing point 3, when they watch Sabrina they just can’t understand why Bogart hasn’t already changed or they spend a great deal of time telling themselves that if only they were in his shoes, they’d know what was important, when the fact is that if they were in Bogart’s position you couldn’t blast them out with a tactical nuke.

Now, it’s time for the main question. What do you teach them with these movies?

The Apartment gives examples of the changing status of women, the treatment of minorities and the often petty nature of corporate life.

The unconscious lessons are that authority can be wrong, that individual action is important and that you can live as hero or heroine even in small matters. I could teach these as part of the conscious part of the class but what for? The ideas are now planted. I might water them a little but time and inclination are more important in determining the effect. (There are also thousands of tiny lessons relating to verbal matters, environment, emotional stances and ways of thinking.)

Cinema Paradiso shows how a business can become embedded in the life of a community and how that influence changes over time. I also find it useful for demonstrating small business decision making as opposed to corporate decision making.

The unconscious lessons are the effect of entertainment particularly movies and, most precisely, on children. The film recreates and recaptures the films of our childhood but much, much more important, it captures the emotional content of those films, the emotional content that redirected our lives.

Sabrina shows the upside and downside of self transformation, an American preoccupation. The film’s observations on class differences are delightful not to mention the interrelationship between the personal and the professional.

The unconscious lesson of the film is that we do not live our lives logically or reasonably. Far more interesting is the idea that even if you are short, fairly ugly, depressed and (in the film) unemotional, beautiful young ladies will still find you attractive. (Whoops! Sorry, that’s my lesson from the film.)

The big lesson from the film is this. You are not what you think you are. You never will fully get a grip on the mystery of you. You are a great unknown. You may look for meaning all your life in books, in experience, in profession or normality, and one day, one moment, it will hit you in the form of a child, a friend, an observation, or in the case of this movie, a young female. And if you fail to grab it, to realize the importance of it, to see what it means, you will walk, talk and eat and still be as dead as a stone.

That’s what I want my students to know.

James Pilant