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network 17/04/2015 - 04:00PM


Cinema Politica’s perennial interest in the production process and social impact of political documentaries is at the heart of two recent publications on the subject.

Hot Docs’ “Documentary Impact: Social Change Through Storytelling” encourages documentary filmmakers to develop an “impact strategy” to increase the likelihood of their film becoming a powerful agent of social, political, corporate, or legal change. Filmmakers must determine why they want to mobilize specific audiences towards their film’s cause, and develop the documentary within these parameters. 

Hot Docs proposes measuring impact around community involvement rather than by comparing social media statistics, boldly concluding that the “[impact that] is easiest to count is usually the least important”. Although participatory marketing and distribution techniques, including social media, are valuable ways to attract attention to a documentary’s agenda, Hot Docs insists that there is no substitute for good storytelling to create social change.  When likeminded activists can use screenings of a persuasive film for their own events, a political documentary can take on a new and impactful life. The article goes on to describe how five recent Hot Docs films (including HERMAN’S HOUSE, which has since screened with Cinema Politica) used compelling, innovative, and engaging documentary narratives to connect with their audiences and move beyond the festival circuit to become a community-based agent of change.

This focus on community involvement shifts from spectatorship to film production in “Making Media with Communities: Guidance for Researchers”, an article sponsored by Northumbria University in Newcastle, UK.  This guide provides academic and ethnographic filmmakers with procedural suggestions for “ethical and practical considerations for creating media outputs with communities as part of research”. Knowing when and how to solicit and accept informed consent from individuals and groups alike, and what to be cognizant of when editing, storing, sharing, and broadcasting co-created media can be particularly difficult for community-based researchers. Moreover, the complicated impact of Creative Commons licenses on the ownership of communal co-productions can quickly devolve into an ethical and logistical disaster. To avert these and other potential problems, the article prescribes an honest and transparent working relationship between researchers/filmmakers and the communities with whom they collaborate.

Neither resource provides a potential resolution for current debates on how to assess and correlate a documentary’s “value” with its “impact”. The clear emphasis, however, on the necessity of community involvement during documentary production and distribution suggest that credibility and compassion are essential to any discussion of a political documentary’s merit. If Cinema Politica’s post-screening discussions of co-created films like SOL and HUICHOLES: THE LAST PEYOTE GUARDIANS are any indication, compelling documentary narratives that grow from communal co-creation are clearly a social force to be reckoned with.

And lastly, for those interested in charting impact from one specific film, the folks behind Liz Marshall’s animal rights documentary THE GHOSTS IN OUR MACHINE have just released their 34-page impact assessment report. Follow this link to download the PDF and read up on how the film changed hearts, minds and behaviours.