Roundtable: Social Action Films that Matter

In our Spring 2014 Activism in Film issue (available to the public next Tuesday, April 22!), we asked the question: Can your movie change the world? In our cover story, Beth Portello, co-founder of Cinema Libre Studio, interviewed representatives from all the different groups that make social change possible: grant organizations, engagement strategists, producers, distributors, and of course the moviemakers at the center of any movement.

Many of the subjects featured in the discussion were members of the online documentarian community, Doculink. These moviemakers have recently made socially and environmentally themed films with the intent of sparking awareness and change. Primarily, we wanted to know how working moviemakers, with a range of budgets, generated and measured the impact of their films – the perennial challenge for activist artists of any kind. We also wanted to know what inspired them to use film as a medium for positive change, and if they had any advice for aspiring documentarians with a passionate need to right a social or environmental wrong.

The following roundtable features the highlights of our discussion (for Portello’s full article, check out our Spring issue.) The Doculink moviemakers that participated are:

  • Sue Wilson, writer, producer, and director of Broadcast Blues, an award-winning documentary film about how our broadcast media system became broken and what we can do about it.
  • Scott Ryan, director and producer of Manifesto, a documentary series about creating change in the lives of everyday people through their own personal manifestos.
  • Robert Bahar, producer and writer of Made in L.A., an Emmy award-winning feature documentary that follows three Latina immigrants working in Los Angeles garment sweatshops as they embark on a three-year odyssey to win basic labor protections from a major clothing retailer.
  • Ines Sommer, director, producer, and cinematographer of Beneath the Blindfold, a documentary about four torture survivors and their attempts to rebuild their lives.
  • Holly Mosher (hollymosher.com), producer of Hummingbird, Vanishing of the Bees, Free For All, and most recently Pay 2 Play, a film about pay-to-play politics in the United States.
Copy of DP Director AlmudenaCarracedo_filming1Felicity Murphy

Made in L.A. DP and Director Almudena Carracedo (Photograph by Felicity Murphy)

MovieMaker Magazine (MM): In your opinion, which documentaries in the last 10 years have had tangible social impact, and did they influence your behavior in any way or inspire you to become a documentarian?

Sue Wilson: So many films have social impact, but I am interested in those that are actually changing public policy. Kirby Dick’s Invisible War is a film I greatly admire, as the director specifically made the film to change policy about the way rape is handled by the military, and it effected change immediately. We can look at films like Super Size Me, which caused McDonald’s to change its menu, but it is a great deal harder to move governmental policy than corporate practices. Many films aim to change policy, but few succeed.  Many raise awareness, however, which over time may lead to change.

Scott Ryan: Gasland, Super Size Me, Made in L.A., Blackfish, Outfoxed, Who Killed the Electric Car?, and The Cove. Super Size Me played a large role in my commitment (and continued passion) for making documentaries. Gasland and The Cove both show how a single film can play a large role in awareness building for a particular issue.

Copy of The Invisible War

Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War (2012)

MM: What factors contributed to these films’ effectiveness as social issue films?

Sue Wilson: Invisible War was screened to military brass even before it was released, and was screened to Congress shortly thereafter.  That was a brilliant case of showing uncomfortable truths to those who are empowered to make change. And it employed the one thing any documentary must have to truly effect change: it embarrassed the subject of the film, in this case the military brass, into action. I believe that any film which does that, and can be seen by the right people, will effect social policy change.

Scott Ryan: Promotional campaigns always set the success for films. First the film has to be amazing or at least controversial/compelling.  Awards and celebrity endorsements, no doubt, have a huge effect on the virality and eventual viewing of any film. Documentaries are a harder sell than scripted films, so having a friend share with you or share via social media is an endorsement of the importance or quality of the film. Sometimes sending a DVD or a link to an assistant can get you a bit of PR that you could never pay for.

In the case of the films I mentioned, The Cove is an obvious standout. It had it all: a great campaign based around the direct action events of the films protagonists/subjects, a timely topic, persuasive storytelling, celebrity involvement, and eventually the awards attention it deserved to make it go mainstream. Indeed, it even had suggestions for audience involvement, which is all too rare. I feel like the real call-to-action is too rarely used these days.

the-cove_poster

MM: Is reaching a large audience as important or more important than reaching a smaller, committed audience?

Robert Bahar: In development, I tend to think in two different ways. First and foremost, I think with my heart about what I want to make, why I want to make it, and what could make it beautiful. But, separately, I do think about potential audiences who would want to see a film, why a film is needed now, and why I am the person to make it. Whether reaching a large audience or a smaller more committed audience is better depends on the objectives. Sometimes it’s important to raise awareness among millions of people, as An Inconvenient Truth did with climate change. But there could be other issues where social change can be catalyzed if the single right person sees a film: for example, the mayor of a town who has the power to change a particular policy. It all stems from the objectives…

Ines Sommer: This really depends on the topic – since our doc, Beneath the Blindfold, deals with such a dark subject matter, I’ve been told by many audience members that they were really afraid to watch it.  Once they see the film, both people who are familiar with the topic (psychologists, social workers who work with refugees and torture survivors) and folks who haven’t thought about human rights issues are usually deeply moved and feel that they have learned so much. So although we would have liked to have wider distribution, the depth of engagement has been phenomenal.

MM: As you develop a documentary project, do you have a specific goal in mind?

Holly Mosher: I think the goals really depend on the level of awareness about certain issues to begin with. As with any advocacy, the first step is to educate the masses, and since our media is so often failing to do its job because of the corporate interests and the interests of their advertisers, we’re seeing this role fall more often into the hands of documentary filmmakers.

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Vanishing of the Bees, produced by Holly Mosher and directed by Maryam Henein and George Langworthy

Scott Ryan: My specific goal is always impact. If it’s an issue film, it’s about outreach and getting boots on the ground to fix the problem. If the issue relates to a particular company, then yes. However, by and large I tell stories about individuals or small groups. Humans who are willing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make things happen. These are the stories that translate and inspire others. As filming progresses I’m always looking for the story points that will affect an audience. It is indeed hard to gauge impact. I think the only way to do this is to look at your web traffic & views, sales, and feedback from your tribe or community.

Robert Bahar: I usually set out to make something because I care about the subject or because I think that the story is beautiful. Making a film is a way to share that subject or story with others who may be equally moved. So connection, engagement and impact come first! The Fledgling Fund has an excellent model for the “dimensions of impact” that a documentary film can have which range from raising awareness, to strengthening social movements to catalyzing social change. The goals depend on the topic and also on the moment.

In the case of Made in L.A., two years after the film was released, there was a push for immigration reform in Washington which offered an extraordinary opportunity to use the film with community and faith groups across the country to catalyze conversations and action. There was no way that we could have predicted that when we started filming in 2001. But because we were connected to the movement, we were aware of what was about to happen and organizers already knew about the film, so it was possible. Awards, critical acclaim and revenue only sometimes correlate to impact. Certainly, higher profile, more artfully made work is more likely to get attention from audiences and activists alike. But some very raw films have made a huge difference either because they’ve gotten there first, or because they were produced in collaboration with their intended audience.

Beneath_the_Blindfold-Hector Aristizabal_theater workshop

Hector Aristizabal conducts a theater workshop in Ines Sommer’s Beneath the Blindfold

MM: Knowing what you know now, what would you change about the way you made this film? How would you approach a subsequent film?

Ines Sommer: Not working closely with a large human rights organization from the get-go is something I’d revisit. Large organizations like Amnesty or Human Rights Watch have their own media staff and want films to be tied in so closely with their current initiatives. A film with a slightly different message has a hard time to get buy-in after the film has already been completed. We are now going forward with a partnership with a somewhat smaller anti-torture group that will use the film with all of its chapters nationally.

Sue Wilson: Three things: I made the film as a work for hire for Public Interest Pictures, and I would not again spend five years of my life on a project I could not completely control. Also, I had great music, like John Lennon singing “Give Peace a Chance” in the film. But that made it very expensive to license to television (not that television wants to show people our rights in broadcasting anyway.) I also would make a shorter film. 75 minutes is long for today’s audiences.

Robert Bahar: The outreach and engagement around Made in L.A. unfolded organically, which was beautiful, but it also meant that we didn’t get that much input from potential partners early on. On our current project, we’ve made a bigger effort to put together a board of advisors and to invite potential partners into the process at the start. This is helping us to be sure that the content itself really speaks to potential partners’ needs.

Scott Ryan: We’d change our strategy and our fundraising format. We’d crowdfund or raise from a few individual investors instead of investing personal funds. MM

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