Can Documentaries Change the World?


"It's one thing to make a film; it's another to make a film matter," said Nina Seavey, director of the Documentary Center at George Washington University, at last night's International Documentary Association's Seminar Series at the West End Cinema in Washington, D.C.

Seavey moderated a panel of filmmakers, changemakers and communication experts, who discussed the possibilities of social change through filmmaking. Participants included Ronit Avni, founder and executive director of Just Vision; Angelica Das, associate director at American University's Center for Social Media; Adam J. Segal, founder/principal at The 2050 Group; and Robert West, co-founder and executive director of Working Films.

Yes, documentaries can change the world, the panelists concluded, but filmmakers need to be authentic, strategic and collaborative in order to make it happen.

They shared several case studies, success stories and words of caution for aspiring benevolent media creators. Here are a few highlights.


Including Samuel is a documentary film by photojournalist Dan Habib, who shows the day-to-day hopes and struggles of including his disabled son into school and community life. The film itself, shot over four years, is an educational glimpse into the cultural and systemic barriers to social inclusion for people with disabilities. But what makes it even more powerful is its strategic connection to a multi-faceted campaign, including a curriculum, training and outreach, formed in partnership with the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire and other supporters.

To get involved, people can see the film or host their own screening, download an educational guide, or share stories about "The I.S. Effect."

Working Films, a nonprofit that supports documentary films in long-term community organizing and activism, was inspired by Samuel's story and created an audience engagement campaign, called “I am Norm.” The youth-led national campaign launched at a two-day workshop in 2010, bringing together national educators, students and disability rights advocates to call for the full social and educational inclusion of people with disabilities.

"To think that one film can carry the world is hugely impractical," said Working Films Co-Founder Robert West. Instead, you need to form "authentic partnerships" that can help bring your film to new audiences, influence public policy and perceptions, and sustain the longevity of the film's social impact campaign.

"It's not necessarily about being an activist," West said, "as much as it is about bringing your film to the activist community."

Recently, Working Films launched an initiative called Reel Equality, a collection of LGBT-focused documentary films with the goal of bringing people together to oppose a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in North Carolina. The project was created in partnership with the Human Rights Campaign and Equality North Carolina.


Filmmakers can bring attention to their social issue documentaries by relying on tried-and-true methods like celebrity endorsements, sensationalism or humor. But at the end of the day, "phenomenal storytelling" generates the viral spread of content, said Ronit Avni of Just Vision, a nonprofit organization that uses award-winning media, community outreach and educational tools to engage people in Palestinian-Israeli civilian efforts to resolve conflict nonviolently.

"Your first responsibility is to make a great movie"—something that would be worthy of a date on a Saturday night, Avni said. Then, you need to know what your storytelling is about—is it about forging new ground or tapping into an existing constituency?

Established in 2003, Just Vision has produced two films, Encounter Point and Budrus, documenting examples of nonviolent activism.

Before these films, there were many stories of military and political leaders in the region's armed conflict but very few depictions of everyday people working towards peace. "By not highlighting their stories, these individuals were treated even more marginally," Avni said. After being screened at high-profile film festivals around the world, her organization's films have now "opened hundreds of doors for the protagonists," giving them opportunities to speak to Parliament, gain media attention, and alter public perceptions of Israel-Palestine nonviolent movements. Just Vision is the "connective tissue," Avni said, that brings the stories to life through campaigns led by educators, facilitators, faith leaders, media and human rights activists.


Adam J. Segal, founder/principal at The 2050 Group, a public relations agency, helps filmmakers, distribution companies and broadcasters promote issue-related documentaries and narrative features. "We take our relationships, experience and knowledge of policy and apply it to our publicity work," he said.

He showed clips of media hits for two documentaries, Orgasm Inc., about the pharmaceutical industry's attempt to develop the first Viagra drug for women to treat a "new" disease: Female Sexual Dysfunction (FSD); and A Sea Change, about the ecological, cultural, and economic effects of ocean acidification.

His group has helped clients achieve success following a "non-traditional path" to reach new audiences, leveraging a wide suite of channels, including national television, media coverage, events and screenings.


The moderator introduced the next panelist as "the crucible for the academic representative for social justice and social media." Angelica Das of American University's Center for Social Media emphasized the importance of being "strategic from the start" when creating socially engaged media. Her Center recently released a new (free!) guidebook, "Social Justice Documentary: Designing for Impact," on best practices for assessing the impact of social documentary and public media 2.0. The recommendations borrow from "design think" ideas, common in the product and industrial design industry, that stress constant iteration and re-evaluation to develop new partnerships, reach target audiences, and respond to successes and failures.

"The primary method for engaging people is through storytelling," Das said. But to create social impact, documentary filmmakers develop social campaigns at the same time as they conceptualize their film. They should also realize that the definition of "documentary" is evolving to include more than just film, encompassing web-native storytelling and transmedia installations in museums, classrooms and billboards. One example is Question Bridge, a transmedia art project that seeks to represent and redefine Black male identity in America through video mediated question and answer exchange.



Beyond the Box Office: New Documentary Valuations: This paper set out to measure the social return on investment created in the UK by the blockbuster climate change film An Inconvenient Truth as an example of an important social justice film whose true value has never been measured.

Social Justice Documentary: Designing for Impact: The report builds upon more than five years of Ford Foundation-funded analysis on social documentary and public media 2.0 that the authors have conducted both together and separately with the American University Center for Social Media.


The Good Pitch: Six to eight filmmaking teams pitch their film and associated outreach campaign to the assembled audience with the aim of creating a unique coalition around each film to maximise its impact and influence.

The Fledgling Fund: With approximately $1.5 million in funding disbursed annually, the fund makes strategic grants and investments that help fledgling projects take flight.