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Sundance: James Redford on How We Should Measure ‘Impact’ in Documentaries

Sundance: James Redford on How We Should Measure 'Impact' in Documentaries

Editor’s Note: Director James Redford, son of Sundance founder Robert, returns to the festival with another new documentary tackling a big issue in the medical field. His new film, “Resilience,” explores the link between early life trauma and life-shortening health problems as an adult. Partnered with HBO, Redford has made a handful films that have tried to shine a light on under-reported stories that can have a dramatic effect on people’s lives. We asked James to share with us some thoughts on the challenges of making social impact documentaries in today’s over saturated media climate and he wrote for us a surprisingly personal story, that also offers a different type of metric of how to measure a film’s reach.  

READ MORE: 14 Films We Cannot Wait to See at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival

Children who are exposed to chronic abuse and neglect can experience changes in their brains and bodies that can shorten their lifespan by 20 years. Most people don’t know this shocking fact. I’m certain that if there were greater understanding and awareness of this problem (and the solutions) we’d see some positive changes.  

And there it is: The “impact” rationale that inspired “Resilience,” my new feature documentary premiering at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

You may be wondering why I put “impact” in quotation marks. The way the word is bandied these days concerns me. Increasingly, filmmakers are being asked to provide an “impact plan” that guarantees concrete, positive, grassroots change. It’s easy to see why proof of impact is increasingly sought by today’s social impact investors: Documentaries are rarely cash cows, so they’d better damn well make a difference.

Additionally, some filmmakers (including yours truly) may occasionally want to produce action plans as well. But we shouldn’t forget that one of the most important impacts of documentary films is the shift in the viewer’s mindset that can lead to great things. 

I started out as a screenwriter. Not long after I had sold my first screenplay, fifteen years of a chronic illness left me near death and in need of a liver transplant. I continued writing screenplays right up until my surgery— mostly to escape my uncertain future. My first transplant was botched and I almost died waiting for the second one. Six months later, when I was lucky enough to start living again, I noticed that the public perception of transplantation and organ donation was in complete disarray. The very real issue of Third World organ trafficking cast a pall over the entire dialogue. Dark comedies featured organs being tossed around the O.R., horror movies featured recipients who took on characteristics of their serial killer-turned-donor.

An important piece was missing. Transplantation is a miracle not because of technology but rather because of our human capacity to give the gift of life during our darkest hour.  

That story was not being told, so in 1996, I produced Maro Chermayeff’s “Kindness of Strangers.” We ended up at Sundance and HBO, and a few months after we premiered, I got a message from a transplant coordinator in Philadelphia who had been featured in the film. He wanted us to know that he had just talked with a grieving family about whether they’d consider organ donation in light of their child’s brain death. They had seen “Kindness of Strangers” a few weeks before and had decided that they all supported organ donation. 
Were there legions of website getting people to e-sign petitions? Hardly. Did half a million people give the film a “thumbs-up”? No. But one family saved seven lives. That might not light up the impact metrics, but I’d take that over shares, likes and tweets every time.
A few months ago, I screened “Resilience”s companion film, “Paper Tigers” at the Milwaukee Film Festival. After the Q&A, I stepped out into the wind-chill night and hurried to my rental car. A woman’s voice called out behind me: “Mister Redford…” I turned around to find a middle-aged couple standing there, hunched in the cold. The woman took a step forward. With a tired, sad smile, she uttered a simple “thank you.” And then retreated to her husband’s side as they hurried away. 

These are the moments that sustain me. I can’t help but feel that if you have profoundly impacted one person, there are probably others who will never come across your radar. It is guaranteed? No. Does that sparkle in an impact report? Probably not. But it’s certainly enough to keep me going — time and time again.
“Resilience” premieres at the Sundance Film Festival at 11:30AM on Friday, January 22 at the Prospector Square Theatre.

READ MORE: Why Sundance’s Tabitha Jackson Wants Audiences to Look at Documentary Films in a Very New Way

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