FREEDOM WRITERS, meet TO SIR WITH LOVE: Bioethics, Film and Understanding

FREEDOM WRITERS is another in the genre that started with the movie TO SIR WITH LOVE. It tells the story of a desperate inner city high school English teacher (Hilary Swank) forced to get creative. She discovers that every kid in her class, but one, knows first-hand what a Holocaust is. However, every kid in her class but the same one, does not actually know what "The Holocaust” was. 

This is the story of how a single teacher can change lives.  In films about the transformative power of education, the children are at risks in most ways defined by the Declaration of Human Rights; food, housing, education, safety.  The learning gap between the rich and the poor screams for the principle of justice. However, conflict in the principle of beneficence is more accurate.  Ignorance is the disease to be fixed.  Beneficence is ethical use of knowledge. Beneficence directs what we ought to be doing with the knowledge we have. 

In principle based ethical decision making, we look for tensions between beneficence, autonomy and justice.  Clarifying the tensions supports the "hunch" that there is an ethical conflict.    In the medical context, beneficence is an obligation to transfer medical information. Information communication requires understanding. How do you make a person understand?

In FREEDOM WRITERS, the teacher physically walls her students off from the chaos of the contextual, geopolitical features which bear on justice.  She closes the door to her class room with the kids inside of it. A safe haven is created out of the storm. This is a smart approach when faced with a bioethical dilemma.  You can't control the geopolitical matters that create social injustice so you do what you can. Conflicts are best resolved resulting in suitable action if the order of considerations is weighted; starting with beneficence, then autonomy and finally justice. Our creative teacher takes her students out of the fray. She weights beneficence, or conveying knowledge, as the first priority. 

In FREEDOM WRITERS, the hook is introducing a group of adolescents to the Holocaust memoir, The Diary of Anne Frank.  Anne's story "de-alienates" the contemporary children. It makes them a part of a broader historical context. The students are freed from the narrow confines of a culture of underdevelopment by exposure to Anne Frank's life and death. 

It is not necessary to grasps every single aspect of a complex field but a clear conceptual understanding of the trends resultant from key information is important.  If knowledge is not relevant to groups of people themselves, it may not be absorbed.  How groups define themselves is called culture. Cultural relevance gaps frequently limit appropriate distribution of benefits and burdens (Justice) as regards information exchange.    

The basis of using film to enhance ethical analysis results from the interchangeable energies associated with narrative forms. Narrative forms include the Aristotelian six arts: dance, music, painting, literature, drama and poetry. Film is referred to as a synergy of all of the arts; becoming Andre Bazin's "seventh art".  What all the arts have in common is narrative.  Narrative forms have historically conveyed morality, through myths, jokes, fables, or religious books.  A specific case is outlined or seen.  The telling case has a theme which guides the observer to a planned engagement, a final conclusion and a resolution as the process finishes.  Using stories or cases to convey morality, is called Casuistry. It seems to work because it connects our common morality, leaving us to feel less alone.  This is how the teacher in FREEDOM WRITERS enhances understanding. 

The classic format of teacher "rescuing" the under developed children in films, is not always about white folks going to the black ghetto. The genre was initiated by the legendary Sydney Poitier, a black man, cast in TO SIR WITH LOVE.  This teacher changed the lives of working class white English teens.  Class, in the Euro-American context, has become synonymous with race. The most compelling films deal with those who return or stay in their communities to provide change. Examples of this version of the genre include STAND AND DELIVER (Menendez, 1988) and COACH CARTER (Carter, 2005).

Freedom Writers. dir. (35mm) directed by Richard LaGraveness.  USA. 2007. Paramount. 122 min. 
To Sir with Love (35 mm) directed by James Clavell. UK. 1967. Columbia. 105 min.

Also read:
Frank, Anneles Marie. The Diary of a Young Girl. (The Diary of Anne Frank) 1947. Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp 1947

For more information on bioethics film and understanding: see
this blog site section on  Film/Bioethics Literacy - Lighten Up: Dying on Screen Slides  .030 and  .018 ( Narrative and Casuistry)  and slides 019 and 0.20 (Informed Consent)