How to Create Documentaries Which Will Change the World
Yesterday I went to another great Union Docs event featuring Judith Helfand (founder of Chicken and Egg and Working Films), Abby Disney (Pray the Devil Back to Hell) and Debika Shome (Harmony Institute).
All 3 have spent years figuring out how to create films which will change the world. Most of their advice was aimed at documentary filmmakers, but a lot of it is relevant to non-profits as well.
1. Ask yourself these questions about your issue: What does the general public not understand? What are your stumbling blocks in terms of public perception of your issue?
2. Even if you want to address a massive problem, do it through the lens of an individual story. Connect how that one story is connected to a bigger story.
3. Find the universal element of a story and focus on it. This will help you reach those outside your established network of supporters. To make your story universal, focus on the everyday. Follow your protagonist around the house. Show them doing the dishes. Interview them in their living room. Use humor. Impact grows from personal and emotional connections.
4. Link storylines to your goals.
5. Focus on change agents: It is the role of the storyteller to listen to people who have new visions for how the world can be and then figure out how to communicate it.
6. You don’t have to do everything in one film. What you can’t do in one, do in the next. Let each film lead you to the next. Build a body of work.
But Your Campaign Strategy is Key.
7. It’s a long process. Change doesn’t just happen when you release your movie. Organizing is how change happens. You have to create a network with other activists, using the film as common ground and inspiration, if you really want to have an impact.
8. Think broadly about impact. Figure out what needle you want to move with the film. Do you want to make people aware of an issue, change their attitude about it or change their everyday behavior?
9. Collaborate! Find other people who are working on your issue (from a wide range of angles) and let them help you devise and implement your campaign strategy. Take advantage of their networks. Don’t think your organization can do it all on your own.
10. Host screenings. Go on the road with your video.
11. When people watch a film with people they know, they are much more likely to take action. ”Nothing is more powerful in inspiring real action than the church basement,” said to Abigail Disney. People need a collective space after seeing the film to process it and decide what action to take. Facilitate that.
12. Social media tools are just that- tools. They are a means, not an end. Face to face engagement (rather than facebook engagement) will lead to more action in the long run.
13. Target different audiences with different actions.
14. Offer concrete actions people can take, but don’t eliminate their creativity in the process. Encourage audiences to take the message of the film and apply it locally (i.e. After seeing Pray the Devil Back to Hell, many people in the U.S. were inspired to volunteer at women’s shelters).
15. Make your audience feel invested in being a film ambassador. Tell them, “We’re the little engine that could and we can make it, but only if you’ll help us.”
16. Have congressmen & women see your film. If you can’t access them, get their staffers to see your film.
All in All:
17. Take advantage of the strengths that you have (like access to characters or connections with influencers/politicians).
18. Embrace the fear. Abigail Disney said, “Every bad decision I’ve made in my life, I’ve made out of fear. Now I know that if something scares me, I better do it.”