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Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: You May Not Change the World, But Here’s How to Give It a Shot

Attention, Documentary Filmmakers: You May Not Change the World, But Here's How to Give It a Shot

Capital, collaboration and powerful content are important elements of making a socially conscious documentary,
according to the DOC NY panelists at the panel devoted to social-action filmmaking moderated by “Trembling Before G-d” director Sandi DuBowski at the IFC Center on November 19.

“We are at a moment in this field where a birth is happening, a real renaissance, a huge range of ideas and strategies and projects…that are just beautiful, artful,” DuBowski said of the documentaries being discussed. Later she added, “When we talk about impact in other countries, whether it be Argentina, South Africa, U.K, Australia, really globally, television has been the backbone of distribution…there’s something happening in Europe now, which is now looking to the U.S for all these strategies.”  

Vessel” director Diana Whitten worked with grassroots distribution company Film Sprout and the media company Fitzgibbon to reach audiences. “The slight difference in emphasis between Fitzgibbon and Film Sprout is that Fitzgibbon is press-oriented and Film Sprout is more community screenings oriented,” explained Whitten.

An important part of the filmmaking process
for “Every Last Child” producer Tom Roberts was emphasising the importance of Polio intervention in his proposal. “I think I won the commission because in my treatment, I [based] a very significant part of it which was ‘why bother?'” said Roberts who later added, “There’s something powerful about destroying the disease forever.” 

READ MORE: ‘Every Last Child’ Probes a Public Health Crisis “Far More Virulent than Ebola”

Picture Motion founder Christie Marchese, whose company worked on the “Fed Up” marketing and advocacy campaign explained how the company strategizes for each project. “The question we start with on every film is: What are you trying to do? Whose life do you want to see change because of this film? Once we understand what those goals are, we figure out who the natural audience of this film is, who wants to see this film, who needs to see this film because sometimes they are very different audiences,” said Marchese.

Marchese continued: “The goal is get people watching, talking and acting on the films they watch. We want to get butts in seats to see that film, but what happens afterwards?” She also shared the impact of the “Fed Up Challenge,” which had close to 60,000 people reading emails about pursuing a healthy lifestyle sans sugar for ten days. It was an Obesity Society report that reflected the power of (grassroots) marketing. “The release of this film, the press and the social media around this [film] campaign did, in fact, change perception about obesity and why our kids are getting bigger, and that was a huge win for us on the impact campaign side,” she said. 

READ MORE: Morgan Spurlock on Why Documentaries Matter More Than Ever

Academy Award-nominated producer (“God Is the Bigger Elvis”) and WNET’s Executive Producer of Documentaries and Development Julie Anderson spoke about the reach “Time for School” has had, and the feedback she’s received after airing the series. “WNET and PBS has a very extensive educational outreach system… our education department has a list of tens of thousands of teachers across the country. These films go out to almost every school in the country and it’s all free, and the teachers can download the curriculum they can show the films in class and they can teach it,” said Anderson. For example, she said, “One school put together this group called ‘The Kenya Crew’ they raised money to build a library in Kenya in [one of the subject’s] town, where he lived, they built a library.” 

Summarizing the sheer importance of partnerships, Anderson said: “As you can see from everybody’s discussion here today, partnerships are incredibly important, you never get this stuff out there on your own.” She added, “Public television is not permitted by FCC rulings to a call for action, but  A World at School can do a call for action, they can say things like ‘Act now, sign our petition’ which we’re not permitted to do, so this was a very good partnership because the way we get around the regulations is by linking to their site.”
With such diverse subjects as Public Health,Food Advocacy and Global Education, one common thread is the importance and need to make films documenting the social causes. Roberts told the attendees that telling people’s stories reminds the subjects that they are “worthy of attention,” especially when the topics are of marginalized people and forgotten causes. 

Roberts concluded the talk with a sobering speech with included the reality that “you might not change the world,” but he still encouraged filmmakers to continue making films anyway. Making good partnerships, having passion and making a long last difference, that is the call to action for documentary filmmakers.   

READ MORE: Is ‘Fed Up’ the Most Successful Documentary of the Year?

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