Q&A with Lance Kramer: Empowering Communities through Film


The Washington, D.C.-based production company Meridian Hill Pictures is on a mission to "create documentary films that educate, inspire and positively impact audiences locally, nationally and across the world." We first heard about the company when joining forces to co-host a pop-up community film screening of the documentary "PLANEAT," bringing people together to learn about how healthy food is good for both people and the environment. (Check out our recap of the event here.)

"My interest has always been in journalism and film, scattered between education and community organizing," co-founder Lance Kramer says. "Those things had always made sense to me. Rather than seeing them as separate, distinct parts of my life, I actually see them as interconnected."

His company, established in August 2010, employs a team of filmmakers who are committed to social justice and education. Ellie Walton, the director of photography, was recently profiled in The Washington Post for her work on a documentary about the effect of the federal stimulus bill on the D.C. Green Corps and job creation in local neighborhoods. Through the government-funded program, members of the Corps learn how to rehabilitate and revitalize public green spaces.

"We followed different Corps people before, during and after their training to understand how the program affected their life," Lance says of the project.

Along with its own documentation, Meridian Hill Pictures also engages in "participatory filmmaking," allowing subjects to tell their own stories. "Them being their own spokespople and doing their own filming, having themselves in front of the camera, interviewing other people in the community—they are very engaged in the sharing of that work," Lance says.

Other films in the Meridian Hill Pictures portfolio include "A Journey Home," about personal struggles with homelessness; "Porchfest," about a community street fair; and "Inspired Teachers," about an innovative professional development program, among many others. (Visit the website to learn more.)

Lance started the business with his brother, Brandon Kramer. The siblings grew up together in Bethesda, Md., always having similar interests and eventually following parallel career paths.

Lance had been working for a nonprofit, based in the D.C. area and China, that produced environmental documentaries, primarily for the BBC. He also worked for the Earth Day Network on environmental education for D.C. Public Schools. Prior to that, he worked as a journalist for a newsweekly in Portland, Ore., covering local news, arts, culture and politics. With a film degree from Dartmouth College, where he minored in film, Lance came back to the D.C. area in 2008 to work on the Obama campaign, running a field office in Virginia.

His brother Brandon shared a similar professional journey in storytelling and education. Before co-founding Meridian Hill Pictures, he worked for The Kennedy Center, teaching documentary filmmaking on a national media arts education tour for middle school students.

I sat down with Lance to ask him more about how he launched his own enterprise, and what he thinks about the power of film to create positive social change.

What is it like going into business with your brother? Did you have a history of collaborating on media projects?

Growing up, we had more infantile collaborations, like spoof videos of James Bond and Shakespeare in a suburban setting. We’re best friends. It was natural for us to think about doing something together. As we’ve gotten older and pursued related career paths, we talked  a lot about different inspirations we were having in our respective jobs. We built up this pool of ideas, which we didn't realize were the pool of ideas that would eventually be the foundation for the company. We had  a Google Doc that we used while were both in our different jobs, and while we were traveling, we used that as a place to dump ideas about what to do with filmmaking and education.

Oddly enough, in 2010, there was this series of events that led to where we are now. We had both been on projects that were funded by grants that concluded around June 2010. We were pretty much out of work. Then, our grandfather died. After he pased away, we found ourselves together, uemployed and in this funky state, which was a combination of being inspired and saddened at our grandfather's loss. On top of that, we had this bizarre occurence where a neighbor we grew up with approached us about going off the coast of Louisiana to film an invention he created to help clean up the oil still spewing from Deep Water Horizon spill. It was the first time doing something grown-up in film togheter.

When we came back, we were really fired up about trying to figure out how we could come back to D.C. to create something new on our own that would resonate with people here.

How did the business get started?

There’s been a virtuous cycle of trying to pilot new ideas and see what works, and also trying to figure out how we can stay as true as possible to our five-page mission statement that we created during a weeklong brainstorming session in the summer of 2010. We didn't have a business plan; we didn't have a five-year strategy. We had this mostly philosophical idea about what we wanted to do, which was, at its core, about how documentary film can be used as a platform for inspiring different forms of community participation and engagement.

What do you hope to achieve?

There’s all this talk about how important communicating through visual media is becoming, evolving through the social media age. And you're obviously seeing the rise of user-generated content and storytelling online, as well as the increased consolidation of large media outlets, in a commercial sense. As all these changes take place, it’s important for all people—particularly those who have been historically marginalized—to have an adept skillset in respect to communicating and sharing and engaging with the public through these various platforms. There are venues to do that beyond just YouTube. YouTube has a place, but I also think that there is a value that comes from in-person, face-to-face screenings.

How do you measure the social impact of documentary filmmaking?

That's the question that everyone is trying to understand. I’m convinced that hits on YouTube and Facebook Insights and Google Analytics are not necessarily the only way to look at that. When you look at impact, there's immediate impact and long-term impact. There's the anecdotal side, which can't be discounted. When someone says their life has been changed, there are not necessarily the best metrics for measuring that. A slight difference in someone's life or a small positive influence can’t be looked at as the only factor of change, but combined with a lot of other factors, it adds up to something powerful.

We have evaluation forms that we’ve been refining and handing out at the end of every public screening project. We have exit interviews and evaluations of community leaders and principals and teachers and students and community members. We have audience surveys and measurable metrics. It really helps in our process of trying to refine our approach. But there’s this whole other space of the abstract and anecdotal, which is the emotional impact that you can perceive and understand but have a much harder time articulating.