Most philosophical discussions of whether film can give us knowledge are disappointing to me. I think this is because they begin with a certain overly narrow notion of knowledge, one that sees knowledge either on a strictly scientific model or as a matter of belief supported by sufficient reasons, the belief expressed in some specific proposition. Knowledge could be understood in a broader way however. I like to think of culture in a Hegel-like way as consisting of a number of closely interrelated disciplines that evolve over time. To see knowledge as somehow isolated, restrained within the domains of science or science plus philosophy, is to deny the depth of these inter-relations. Philosophers, for example, do not think their thoughts in isolation from every other aspect of the culture. The films I have seen in my life have played an important role in the ongoing development of my philosophical thoughts and writings. This must be true for others as well. There is an overly narrow conception of knowledge which sees is as based on reasoning of a mechanical sort. Much of this, I believe, quite controversially I know, is based on over-reliance on the syllogism as the main basis for knowledge. I am not by any means anti-logic, but I am against the primacy of the syllogism. The syllogism provides us the the idea that two premises can automatically guarantee a conclusion. If A then B, A, therefore B, is one example. The reality of reasoning is usually more a matter of trying to get from A to B, and if the inference seems powerful we hypothesize a hypothetical, if A than B. The real question is what prompts us to see B as necessarily following from A. Cultural background usually provides the basis for what we consider an obvious inference.
Turn now to film and its interrelations with philosophy. When I was in my teens the minister of my church, Episcopalian, gave a sermon based on a movie by Stanley Kubrick that had just come out, 2001: A Space Odyssey . Father Wilder was convinced that this movie said something deep about our relationship to the universe, something that connected up with his notion of Christianity. Although I was already beginning to have deep doubts about Christianity and even about the existence of God I was moved not only by the movie but also by the sermon. I believe that the movie and the sermon had together a profound affect on my belief-system.
Let's consider knowledge in a different way than it is usually considered. Knowledge is a matter of belief systems, or, better, a space or field of belief, and the fit between such a field and the world. I agree with Nelson Goodman that there are many ways the world is: but there is still "the world." My Hegelian side adds that these different ways the world is, whether through film or through philosophy, or through a specific philosophy, interact with each other dialectically. I even think that there are religious ways the world is and that these religious ways also relate dialectically with ways the world is that are more prominent in the mind of an atheist. Movies do not usually reshape belief space by presenting arguments but rather by making it more likely that we see B as following from A. 2001 implied some things explicitly that, in my own thinking, had no impact, for example that mankind might evolve into something much more profound through contact with mysterious more highly evolved species. Sure, that might be true, but what was more moving about this movie was, and still is, harder to describe. It is partly that we should see evolution as having a possible upbeat side and that technology as it advances may contain possibilities that go beyond our expectations. The opening up of possibilities for thinking rather than actual support for propositions is how movies can contribute to knowledge. Wikipedia observes that the movie : "deals with the themes of existentialism, human evolution, technology, artificial intelligence, and extraterrestrial life." Again, it does not proves points in any of these areas, but it does transform the belief space of receptive audience members concerning these things. If knowledge is understood not just as justified true belief but as an ability to achieve improved interaction with the world through improved models of that world, then changed belief space falls within the domain of knowledge.
Wartenberg notes "a number of philosophers have argued that films can have at most a heuristic or pedagogic function in relation to philosophy. Others have asserted that there are clear limits to what films can accomplish philosophically. Both of these types of views regard the narrative character of fiction films as disqualifying them from genuinely being or doing philosophy." I count myself in the other group of philosophers, the small group that believes that the role of film in relation to philosophy (and even in relation to science) is not heuristic or pedagogic. I also question whether there are clear limits to what films can accomplish philosophically, but only because I do not see many instances of "clear limits" in this domain. I do agree that films do not provide arguments. However I question the dominance of the syllogism as a picture of what we do in argumentation. Actually, philosophical argumentation is always a form of narrative: a form of story-telling. This is true even when everything is done to hide it narrative nature. The syllogistic form is just distorted story-telling. The greatness of a great work of philosophy is not the conclusion it proves but the story it tells. This is why we have philosophical classics, for example Plato's Symposium, and why we go back to them again and again. I do not want to simply say that philosophy is just another form of literature; but it does share more in common with literature than most philosophers are willing to admit. And also with film.
I have a problem with the typical way that philosophers of film defend the idea that films can give us knowledge. The idea is that film can do philosophy via giving us thought experiments. Sure, film can do this and in this way film is much like much of contemporary philosophy. But film's capacity to give us knowledge should not be limited to paradigms like The Matrix which seems to raise again problems first brought up by Descartes. The idea of "themes" suggested above by our discussion of 2001 and constantly brought up by high school teachers when discussing literature can perhaps be more helpful here. By bringing up themes and raising issues film can affect our belief space. By the way, belief space can be affected by not actually changing beliefs, if by a belief one simply means holding a proposition to be true. Changing belief space is more like changing an attitude or set of attitudes: changing what one considers to be important in relation to belief. A film might not convince me that there is a God but might change my attitude towards what is rationally possible for those who believe in God. We constantly build and work on belief spaces for beliefs we do not actually hold. Even though I am no longer an Episcopalian I still have a belief space with regards to Episcopalian belief, about what is possible there and about what follows from what.