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Empathy Machine: Empathy in 2019 Films | Zac Oldenburg

Movies have been around for over 100 years now, and ever since then they have been about putting yourself in someone else's shoes. What started off simply as taking you to places your shoes couldn’t visit, movies quickly shifted into taking you to places that were not even real. But once the allure of moving pictures becomes commonplace, the stories inside them must evolve to keep viewers coming back.

The “characters” in film started as simply the people gawking at the camera while passing by the cameraman’s shot; however, the addition of narrative to that moving celluloid meant we had to start caring about those characters. We had to start understanding and empathizing with those characters. Before we knew it, films weren’t just making us empathize with the humans in them, but also making us feel and understand the emotions of a giant ape on top of the Empire State Building. Movies became empathy machines.

Now, I’m not here to take you on a tour of empathy in film over the last century, but how about the last year?

Last year featured three amazing examples of empathy on film in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Waves, and Joker. Portrait is a romance--a seemingly simple place to find empathy, but the lesbian love at the center of it is felt with such strength and feeling as we hurt for this pair of lovers who will never get to stay together. The looks these ladies, Marianne and Héloïse (Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel), give each other seem to pierce through the screen. But the film’s incredible finale is what finally breaks you, as you cry along with characters and every emotion you’ve felt along the way overwhelms you all at once.

Check out our Spring/Fall 2020 Kind Writers Literary Magazine for the full article.

Bio: Zac Oldenburg has been writing about film, tv, games and what have you since 2007. He also hosts a podcast, Middle of the Row: The Podcast, at When he's not doing that, he's teaching children to be awesome. @zacoldenburg

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