Making Soup With Stones: Filmmaking for a Cause


Highlights from the 2011 Benevolent Media Festival: On Monday, November 7, Benevolent Media and the World Resources Institute hosted a Nonprofit Storytelling Filmmaking Workshop, led by Stone Soup Films, a  nonprofit cooperative that produces and donates promotional films to worthy organizations.

"A lot of organizations are so close to their programs that they forget that there are some fundamental basics to storytelling," Stone Soup Films Director and Founder Liz Norton reminded about 60 attendees of a free workshop on the power of a good story in helping nonprofits achieve their mission, build broad-based support, and strengthen their brand identities.

Established in 2008, Stone Soup Films is a volunteer collaborative based in Washington, D.C. that donates the time of filmmakers to produce free, high-quality promotional videos for nonprofit groups that lack communications budgets or don't have the staff capacity for multimedia projects.

Norton and her co-presenter, Laurel Gwizdak, a documentary filmmaker and youth media educator, emphasized the importance of storytelling through film, especially for nonprofits. Films can highlight success stories, give voice to the voiceless, build community, and give the public access to your work. They are also usually more influential than text.

"People turn off when they start hearing numbers, especially a ton of numbers," Gwizdak said.

Norton echoed her advice: "It's important to tell the story of how a mosquito net saved a child, instead of saying you gave out 15,000 mosquito nets."

In short, it's best to stick to universal themes, like love, death, birth, suffering and innocence. And "be faithful to the truth."

The Stone Soup duo showed three  examples of impactful videos made on behalf of nonprofits and social causes:

Kakenya’s Dream, an animation that shows a story of triumph, told as a personal narrative, that connects people to broad-based advocacy, as opposed to direct services relief. The story highlights a positive message and a clear call to action.

The Meth Project,  a series of vignette-style advertisements based on real-life stories that illustrate the devastation of meth on individuals and families. The campaign helped reduce the meth use rate in Montana by 60 percent in the first year.

Norton and Gwizdak also presented a case study of a short documentary-style video that they made for Urban Alliance, which connects youth to paid internships, mentoring and formal training in Washington, D.C. The target audience was businesses and corporate sponsors who might be willing to partner with the organization. The goal was to "demystify" the participants in the program and address any fears that the prospective partners might have. The clip shows a mother talking about the challenges her daughter faced as an Urban Alliance program participant and is a good example of honest, authentic storytelling.

Urban Alliance: Rissa and her Mom at Home from Stone Soup Films on Vimeo.


I spoke with Gwizdak to learn more about how Stone Soup Films is helping to grow a community that values creativity for a cause. (The filmmaker is also involved in Gandhi Brigade, which we wrote about here.)

Laurel said she was awakened to social impact films when living in San Francisco. A screening of Hotel Rwanda led her to join the Peace Corps at the age of 22. Placed in the Ukraine, she organized a youth parliament and educational summer camps. Laurel said she became addicted to the enthusiasm of the young people in her programs. She believes one good way to teach self-confidence to youth is for them to witness the power they have to solve large social problems.

When Laurel entered graduate school at George Washington University, she only knew that she wanted to work with youth and low-income people on an international level. While her classmates interned at development agencies, she volunteered for Stone Soup Films in its earliest stages.

Her experiences working with Stone Soup Films were critical in helping Laurel find her niche: a filmmaker who works with youth to ensure that their perspectives reach wider audiences.

“I was drawn to Stone Soup Films. My heart was here. This was where I was supposed to be,” Laurel said.

Laurel said it’s also about building friendships and relationships centered on making social impact films. For example, through Stone Soup, Laurel found a partner for an upcoming documentary film in India.

She said Stone Soup is a haven in what can be an “intensely competitive” industry. The new office now includes a meeting space and two editing suites, with plans for a third.

In addition to interns, a core group of volunteers come to Stone Soup on a daily basis. Laurel says there are currently five projects in production. A typical day’s activities include planning shoots, editing and assigning production volunteers.

Laurel didn’t move to D.C. for its film scene, but she was pleasantly surprised. To find D.C.’s creative side, “you do have to seek it out a little more than you might, say, in San Francisco or New York," she said. "In some ways, it makes filmmaking and other creative endeavors a little more special.”


Stone Soup Films has two upcoming events for you to check out:

The Fruit of Our Labor Film Screening on Friday, November 18 from 7:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. at Stone Soup Film’s office in Georgetown. The film is a collection of documentary shorts that bring to life ordinary Afghans' efforts to address their challenging social and economic conditions.

DSLR Filmmaking Full-Day Workshop on Saturday, November 19 from 10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.

Learn more:

Erica Schlaikjer contributed to this post.