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Here’s Why A Grassroots Screening Tour May Be Right for Your Documentary

Here's Why A Grassroots Screening Tour May Be Right for Your Documentary

Like most vérité documentary filmmakers, I live for serendipity. I remember taking long car trips as a kid where my parents would purposefully get us lost.  We’d take side streets that would sometimes lead to random adventure, new neighborhoods and stunning scenery. As a documentarian, I’ve embraced those kinds of unexpected twists and turns. They can be gold when comes to the often unpredictable adventure of making a film.

READ MORE: Here’s Why Social Impact is More Important for Documentaries Than Ever Before

What I didn’t realize is that the very process I’ve learned to love during production can also be applied to distribution. Conventional wisdom says that after a film is finished, you then enter it into festivals, try to win some awards and hopefully land a distribution deal where you recoup some of the money you’ve laid out. This was fortunately the case with my first film “Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa,” which played at 40 film festivals, won seven best documentary awards and was nominated for a Gotham Award, after which it was licensed by the Sundance Channel.

When I learned that my new ITVS-funded film “Broken Heart Land” would be broadcast on WORLD Channel (a PBS digital companion channel) before there was time to play at any festivals except for one, I was definitely less than thrilled, and here’s why: Most film festivals will disqualify any films that have shown in the area where the festival takes place, including broadcast  In addition, WORLD Channel is a PBS subscription service which is not carried in Oklahoma, where the film takes place, or many of the other Bible Belt states where we’d hoped to make a difference with our film. There would be no time or opportunity to build an audience, win awards, get reviews, and launch a wide-reaching impact campaign.

It took three years to make the film with my sister and co-director Randy Stulberg, and my husband and producer Eric Juhola. Let me repeat – three years of living with this story about a conservative Oklahoma family dealing with the aftermath of their gay teenage son’s suicide, learning that he was HIV positive, and the community’s divided reactions. It was one of the most emotional periods of my life, and it was life-changing for the subjects, who underwent a dramatic transformation from fear and silence about their son’s HIV status to outspoken anti-stigma activists in the face of strong political opposition. The thought of having this story peter out without a focus in heartland America was a hard pill to swallow.

And then came a phone call from the Fledgling Fund. We received a grant to organize a screening tour of the film.  In preparing for the tour, we hired impact strategist Christina Lindstrom, formerly of Participant. With limited funds, we would have to be strategic about where to screen and who to partner with.  

Through research, we discovered that there are eight states in the U.S. that still have laws on the books which prohibit any discussion of homosexuality in public education, and that these are many of the same states where there has been increased HIV infection rates in young people since 2000. Because of this, we decided to keep the screening tour focus on these 8 states: Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. We partnered with local inter-faith organizations, HIV non-profits and LGBT rights groups in these states to host and promote free community screenings that are open to the public. 

At first I didn’t know what to expect at these screenings. As a life-long New Yorker, conservative states have always felt like a different country to me. I didn’t understand or empathize with conservative and religious values which stigmatized the LGBT community, and I always associated that stigma with hate. What I realized from most of the conservative people I met was that they weren’t guided by hate, but rather they were misguided by love. It’s a very subtle distinction, but one that I think makes all the difference when trying to build bridges between communities.

What I found was a tremendous outpouring of emotion, as often-marginalized audiences connect and identify with the family in the film both on-screen and in person, and I slowly learned to take down my protective armor, and meet people where they are. I was able to witness first hand the power of film to put people in someone else’s shoes.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the tour has been getting the film in front of policy makers and others on the front lines of LGBT rights and comprehensive sex education in the Bible Belt and heartland. In Louisiana, we screened the film for the State Office of Public Health, facilitating a discussion about how to deal with one of the highest STD rates in the nation. And in Norman, Oklahoma, where the film takes place, it was screened for every educator in the public school system. Another screening group of tolerant religious leaders has led to the formation of an Interfaith council, which is committed to introducing LGBT equality legislation in the city. These screenings are leading directly to social change, one baby step at a time, and it’s gratifying to see it happening.

When we started making the film back in 2010, we had no idea that we’d be orchestrating a screening tour as a means of distributing “Broken Heart Land.”  We thought we would follow the more traditional path that independent documentary filmmakers travel: from festival to festival with a theatrical and/or broadcast as the final moment for the film. In fact, we’ve learned that each film is different. For “Broken Heart Land,” it was the opposite. The broadcast was the kickoff for a longer, deeply affecting tour, which will hopefully continue to stay relevant for some time to come. 

Through the experience, we’ve been able to redefine success. We learned that targeted reach can lead to deeper and more meaningful impact. We want to continue to bring this film to more communities in other Bible Belt and heartland states as well. We know that there are so many communities that need to see the film, and we want to continue to use it to spark discussion and make change throughout the country. It’s been a unconventional trip, to say the least, but if I learned anything from those car trips with my family back in the day, it’s that sometimes going off the beaten path can be incredibly rewarding.

To read more about our impact campaign and to see how you can get involved or donate, please see our latest newsletter here. Visit our website to learn more and to see if the film is coming to an area near you.

READ MORE: Make a Movie, change the World: What It’s Like to Work With Impact Partners

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