A Quick Look at 4 Films that Address Systems Change

Nora Bateson
9 min readJan 2, 2022

What does system change look like?

Does it look like highly trained systems professionals making presentations in an organization or government offices using an array of brightly colored post-its and half a dozen models? Does it look like activism? Is it closer to advertising? Is it about getting the right meme to go viral? Is it “a change of narrative” or a shift of conditions? Is it getting the ear of existing system? Is it a bet, or a story? Is it a hit song?

I spend my days working with complex systems like families, societies and forests… one thing is clear, the whole issue of change is centered on how the participants of a system are in relationship. Relationships are made in communication.

For me, ultimately the question of system change is a communication question.

Films are communication. So let’s compare the cinematic illustration of system change, or system stuckness in a few different films. These films are a few of my favorites. But they are just a few of many, they are all big Hollywood productions. I have no idea if the directors intended to contribute to the systems sciences, and I have never actually heard others speak of these films in this light. Perhaps they have.

The films are:

The Big Short directed by Adam Mckay

Straight Outta Compton directed by F. Gary Gray

Spotlight directed by Tom McCarthy

And Don’t look Up, also directed by Adam McKay

The recently released film, “Don’t Look Up” is generating a wave of praise and criticism — Praise for its acumen in illustrating the frustrations of trying to convey the urgency of climate change. Criticism for not actually communicating this urgency to those who are the ones whose minds must be changed. In light of the enthusiasm and criticism of this film I started to think about other films that address systemic change, and thought it might be interesting to jot down some thoughts.

As a filmmaker, educator and author I am interested in how the filmic medium, the arts, and the sciences can be useful toward this inquiry of systemic change. Each of the above films, while telling an important story about something in…

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Nora Bateson

Filmmaker, writer, educator, lecturer, President of the International Bateson Institute. Books: Small Arcs of Larger Circles 2016, Warm Data *upcoming 2019