When can Documentary Film have Social Impact?

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A lecture given at Bournemouth University, 7th January 2014.

This presentation discusses the origins and definitions of documentary film, before looking at the historical trajectory of social issue documentary and the critical debates surrounding this emerging field.

Difficulties in defining and measuring impact are presented, before a discussion of two case studies.

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  • I’ve worked at the intersection between media and philanthropy for the past six years, as a documentary researcher, freelance videographer, and charity communications consultant. Researched in different disciplines – now studying for a PhD in interactive documentary in Media Arts. Research focus is on how new technologies are shaping documentary, and practice projects draw on participatory video found in International Development sector. Want to know how these have impact, and result in societal change. Particularly interested to see how the media can be used by those in traditionally ‘unpowerful’ positions – such as refugees and those caught in conflict situations to tell their own stories and advocate on their own behalf. How can the media be used to reverse the power structures of our society, and how does it reinforce them? Lecture will be 1 hour 20 mins – videos and case studies, periods for Q&A so save your questions until the end
  • Social Issue documentary – and those that are integrated with campaigning – are only a sub-section (albeit an increasing one) of the genre of documentary.Take a quick look at documentary, as its features are also true of social issue documentaries, and social issue documentaries used in campaigning.It’s very easy to see documentary as ‘non-fiction’ in contrast to ‘fiction’ films – which undermines one of its key characteristics. Although documentary has seen many different movements and definitions there are key features that re-appear.Firstly the idea that documentaries represent as well as record.John Grierson is known as the ‘father’ of documentary – coining the term and providing the first definition in 1933 as ‘the creative treatment of actuality’In the first publication applying modern film theory to the study of documentary film, Bill Nichols docymentary exists ‘in the crease between life as lived and life as narratized’ – in this book he calls for the breaking down of the over-simplistic dichotomy between fiction and truthLinda Williams calls for a definition of documentary “not as an essence of truth but as a set of strategies designed to choose from among a horizon of relative and contingent truths” – recognising that our truth comes from how we perceive and understand the world – we choose what we believe about what we see, and construct narratives which we refer to to make our way through lives. Documentary truth can therefore be seen as the truth of meaning making processes, not simply the ‘actuality’ of an image.All representation involves choices – editing, who to film, how to film – there’s always a point of view. Being as transparent about this point of view is a key feature of honest and good storytelling.
  • Documentaries have traditionally been about social issues and many of the earliest documentarians such as Grierson, were committed to social change. However, there has in the past 15 years been a joining where films have become campaigns in and of themselves – either filmmakers joining with NGOs and campaigners, or on their own.There are some social issue films that remain just ‘social issue’ films – not campaigns, so social issue ‘campaigning’ films may be a better term.Subject for much debate in film circles regarding objectivity, what this means for future of documentary when funding leans more towards ‘impact’ films and left-wing tendencies. Its important to recognise that social issue films aren’t always campaigning films.Thomas Waugh’s ‘Show Us Life’ investigates the history and aesthetics of what he terms ‘committed documentary’ – Ivens, Brecht, - seminal publication in trying to understand the links between film, culture, society and politics.Challenge for Change – launched in 1967 by NFB Canada – with primary goal of addressing poverty in Canada through the production and dissemination of documentary cinema. 145 films produced – including Fogo Process – pioneering the use of documentary in community development.'Nowhere else did such a relatively well-financed program test in such a consistent and focused way many of the tenets of internaitonal New LEft and its cinematic cohort, the idealistic armies of shaggy baby boomers wielding 16mm cameras and Sony Portapak videos throughout the industrialized democracies and in mcuh of what we then called the "Third World", most notably Latin America and India' (p6)This video has been made by the Fledgling Fund, an private foundation who believe that film can bring about a better world, and provide grants to support outreach and audience engagement – it outlines an example of how ‘social issue documentary campaigning’ would work.
  • http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UokdMHmiPU&feature=share&list=UU7SAW7F2hetgI2Krnd7chrQ&index=1
  • Creating social change from a film centres on the belief that people come in as participants in a media project and leave recognizing themselves as members of a public—a group of people commonly affected by an issue. They have found each other and exchanged information on an issue in which they all see themselves as having a stake. In some cases, they take action based on this transformative act of communication.Doc. Film projects increasingly become core elements of social issue campaigns – telling deep human stories about complex problems – connects, engages members of the public as citizens and members of humanity rather than media consumers. Many seek to counter a national ‘civic recession’ marked by declining voting, participation in public debates and volunteerism. Eg. An Inconvenient Truth (Al Gore – huge contribution to the global warming debate)Difficulties in tracking impactTracking has become increasingly complex due to:Campaigns can now spread across platforms and over a longer period of timeEach screening can have different expectations, measurement schemes and publicsCheaper production and distribution toolsNew channels for sharingIncreasingly skilled and networked usersThese are all challenging previous assumptions about how social documentaries reach and engage users – but they also hold new opportunities for impact and collaborationDifficult to develop comparative assessment frameworksTransition from 1.0 to 2.0 opens opportunities for documentarians to fulfill and expand their missions – building community cohesion and participation.  However, quick-shifting digital terrain makes it difficult to develop comparative assessment frameworks. Documentarians are becoming more nimble, adopting research and planning methods that more closely resemble those associated with fields such as product design, agile software development and community organizing.
  • This has led to Current qualitative evaluation is taking place unevenly across social doc sector – gathering and synthesizing anecdotes into trends and outcomes – how a film contributes to changing indicidual behavior or opinion, shifting debate on a key issue, informating policy or acting as an educational resource. Methods include content analysis of online and ofline coverage, participation and dialogue, field observations of use of the film, visualisations of emerging issue or community based networks.People –A more standardized methodological approach combining strengths of both types of analysis is required, to allow for consistent assessment of social impact of documentary film.
  • Common quantitative measurements tracked include:
  • These focus on the degree to which a film contributes to a healthy participatory civic life.Important to have both.
  • In 2008 Fledgling Fund produced Assessing Creative Media’s Social Impact, since used to assess a variety of social documentaryFirst published framework for assessing impact – with case studies These dimensions of impact look at the different layers necessary for a film to result in social changeCompelling story – filmmakers with track record, festival acceptances etc.Awareness – ability to gather people around an issue – press coverage etc.- Engagement – participation in and response to facilitated dialogues and screenings, blog posts, social networking, take action campaigns, website hits etc.Stronger Movement – role of flim in larger policy debates, and increased support of campaign orgs involved in the film production/campaignSocial Change – key policy or legislative changes, framing of public debates, shifts in public dialogueThere are criticisms of this – including Abrash & Clark who point to missing dynamics such as the value of incorporating user-focused research at end of each phase of social doc’s rollout – calling for ‘design thinking’Also a new approach designed at University of Illinois, US, that would use ‘big data’ to take into account base lines for many of the quantitative assessments. CoMTI framework (content, medium, target and impact framework) – base line model, a ground truth model and a change model.
  • First case study is The Act of Killing – a 2012 film by Joshua Oppenheimer in which those who carried out mass killings in 1965 are invited to recreate these killings – shows a culture of impunity and celebration of violence, but through acting out the crimes once again some of purportrators begin to see things differently. Winner of BRITDOC PUMA IMPACT award 2013Trailer - https://vimeo.com/79346822
  • Outreach team run by group of human rights activists and filmmakers working with the Danish production company -
  • Challenge in designing a distribution model to create maximum impact without physical violence around issues previously too sensitive to be discussed publicly. Screenings have included a remote jungle, university lecture halls with people standing in the isles, the site of a mass grave with victim’s children and perpetrators children.
  • TEMPO magazine – 75 pages of killers’ testimony alongside review of the film – unprecidented in history of Indonesian journalism – previously no one has discussed the massacres or they are mentioned as positiveLeading Indonesian religious leader has historically justified the genocide – wrote an editorial after watching the film condemning the genocide as a crime against humanity and saying the film should be mandatory viewing for all Indonesians – went viral on FB and Twitter
  • A film about the forced removal of a young Afghan from the UK, who came to the UK at 13 and then is deported back to a war zone. Part-filmed by him.
  • Compelling story – filmmakers with track record, festival acceptances etc.Awareness – ability to gather people around an issue – press coverage etc.- Engagement – participation in and response to facilitated dialogues and screenings, blog posts, social networking, take action campaigns, website hits etc.Stronger Movement – role of flim in larger policy debates, and increased support of campaign orgs involved in the film production/campaignSocial Change – key policy or legislative changes, framing of public debates, shifts in public dialogueFilm can be a galvanising force around an issue – Clayton has gone on to work on a play using multimedia, to win a research grant to host discussion and debate about the issue…Participation – other interesting angleMy PhD research and practice …..
  • Shift in past 15 years from an understanding of doc films as sources of reliable information on hidden injustices to central nodes embedded in strategic campaigns designed to inform, motivate and engage viewers as active citizens. In part due to lack of funding, in part due to natural marrying of interests between often left-wing documentarians and NGOs, in part due to realisation within NGO circles that media needs to be embraced.Social issue documentaries will continue to evolve over time, in response to obstacles, opportunities, new technologies, and eventsSuccessful projects feature strategic campaigns with clearly articulated goals and target audiencesIncrease in relationships between NGOs, charities & filmmakers and organisations working at this meeting point – more NGOs will realise the power & importance of filmSocial issue documentaries will be produced and circulated within a networked media and advocacy landscape – acting as hubsfor organizing, collaboration and knowledge-sharingFunding,sustanability will continue to be biggest challengesMore diversity of skills within filmmaking teams – campaigners, digital marketers, etc. The debates within documentary film about whether documentary is ‘selling-out’ will continue
  • When can Documentary Film have Social Impact?

    1. 1. DOCUMENTARY & SOCIAL CHANGE MARY MITCHELL
    2. 2. ABOUT ME • BA (Hons) History, University of Manchester • MSc Forced Migration, University of Oxford • PhD Candidate, Interactive Documentary, University of London Research Interests: ICT4D, Migration, Participatory Video, Social Media, Nonprofits, Digital Storytelling, Charity Digital Strategy
    3. 3. OVERVIEW • Provide an overview of documentary film & social issue documentary • Discuss impact – ways of defining and measuring • Case Studies – The Act of Killing • Hamedullah • Q&A
    4. 4. KEY THEMES Impact Partnerships Participation Representation
    5. 5. WHAT IS DOCUMENTARY?
    6. 6. WHAT IS DOCUMENTARY? Documentaries represent as well as record • ‘The creative treatment of actuality’ – Grierson, 1933 • Documentary exists in the ‘crease between life as lived and life as narratized’ – Nichols • Documentary ‘not as an essence of truth but as a set of strategies designed to choose from among a horizon of relative and contingent truths’ – Williams, 1993 All representation involves choices.
    7. 7. SOCIAL ISSUE DOCUMENTARY • Redefinition of the term • Thomas Waugh ‘Committed Documentary’ (1984) 1. A specific ideological understanding and declaration of solidarity with the goal of radical socio-political transformation. 2. A specific positioning - 'activism' or intervention, in the process of change itself. “We realized that the important thing was not the film itself but that which the film provoked” – Fernando Solanas, 1969 • Challenge for Change – “media that foreground empowered representation, creative collectivism, dialogic process, and exposure of and resistance to power and oppression”
    8. 8. VIDEO
    9. 9. DEFINING & MEASURING IMPACT • Difficult to define & track impact • Difficult to develop comparative assessment frameworks
    10. 10. DEFINING & MEASURING IMPACT  evaluation taking place unevenly across the social doc. Sector Methods include: • Content analysis of online and offline coverage • Participation and dialogue • Field observations of use of the film • Visualisations of emerging issue or community based networks People involved: Fledgling Fund, the Knight Foundation, Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, Participant Films, public funders such as the BBC.
    11. 11. DEFINING IMPACT Current impact assessment initiatives generally agree that: • Primary goals to inform, engage and motivate publics • Emphasis on open and accessible media • Providing relevant and trusted quality content, and strengthening the capacity of individuals to engage with that information is a unique and necessary public service (Clark & Abrash, Designing for Impact, 2011)
    12. 12. QUANTITATIVE MEASUREMENTS • Numbers and diversity of viewers across platforms • Mentions of the film across traditional and online media • Sales and paid screenings • Investment by foundations and individual donors • Numbers of users engaged, both on social media platforms and in offline settings
    13. 13. QUALITATIVE MEASUREMENTS • The amplification and reframing of an issue in media coverage and public discourse • Reported activities after viewing—such as voting, partnerships, events, training, and behavioral changes • The creative capacity of a film to generate identification, connection, and controversy • Mobilization for action around issues • Entry of the film or campaign into policy- and decision-making circles • Legislative and/or policy impact • The nature and durability of partnerships around an issue • Creative initiatives that contribute to community-building 
relationships formed across boundaries of ethnic, class, generational, racial or religious difference
    14. 14. THE ACT OF KILLING
    15. 15. CAMPAIGN GOALS • To catalyse a fundamental change in how the 1965-1966 genocide is understood in Indonesia and internationally • To generate a nationwide critical discussion about how the past lives on in the present • To demand an official apology, a truth commission, a reconciliation process, and an end to impunity, corruption and the use of gangsters in business and politics.
    16. 16. THE CAMPAIGN • Private invitation only screenings across the country – Autumn 2012 • International Human Rights Day – 50 screenings in 30 cities held by leaders of Indonesia’s civil society – December 2012 • Released in conjunction with National Human Rights Commission Indonesia’s report on the atrocities • Indonesian Independence Day – 45 screenings announced publicly for the first time • Available for free download across Indonesia on Sept 30th anniversary of start of 1965-66 genocide • Film toured Istanbul, Turkish Kurdistan, Armenia, Jenin, Ramallah and West Bank • Say Sorry for 65 petition - USA
    17. 17. IMPACT • 600 new articles published in Indonesia • 100 Festivals in 57 countries • 1000 Community Screenings in 118 cities • 21 countries have released the film for cinema • 21 countries presold the film for TV • 29 awards and prizes • 350K hits on website • 22K follows and likes on social media sites • Special issue of TEMPO with new research
    18. 18. HAMEDULLAH
    19. 19. IMPACT • Best Documentary Winner at LIFF • Shortlisted for One World Media Award • Hosted conference attended by 120 people working in the field of child protection and asylum policy keynote address by Children’s Commissioner for England • 80 screenings and presentations at human rights, arts, cultural and policy events • Film & conference proceedings invited by an MP to be submitted to the 2012 Joint Select Committee into the Human Rights of Unaccompanied Migrant Children and Young People in the UK • Screening at the UN in Geneva – participated in UNHCR policy debate paper
    20. 20. TRENDS IN DOCUMENTARY & SOCIAL CHANGE • Continuing to evolve in response to changing landscape • Successful projects have strategic campaigns with articulated goals and target audiences • Increasing relationships between filmmakers & NGOs • Social issue documentaries increasingly produced within a networked media and advocacy landscape • Funding & sustainability continue to be biggest challenges • Increasing diversity within filmmaking teams • Continuing debates about the role of campaigning in social issue documentary

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