Q&A with Kurt Engfehr: Creating an "Empathy Awakening"


At a December 2006 gala, President Barack Obama described how Americans must overcome the country's "empathy deficit" to eradicate society's biggest problems, like child poverty, AIDS, joblessness and homelessness. He was talking about society's lack in "the ability to put ourselves in somebody else's shoes, to see the world through somebody else's eyes."

Following his call to action, a group of filmmakers is on a mission to expose the so-called empathy deficit and showcase the "social revolutionaries" who are doing something to erase it.  The film will be directed by Kurt Engfehr, known for his successful documentaries like Bowling for ColombineThe Yes Men Fix the World, and Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.

Stand In My Shoes is billing itself as a "crowd-fueled film," relying on participation from filmmakers around the world—and funders who will back them—to conduct interviews that will be submitted to an online storytelling platform (currently in development.) The plan is to start production in 2013 and release the film at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014.

For now, people can support the project through a Kickstarter campaign, which launched on August 27. To make the film a reality, pledge your support at http://kck.st/T0vZcY. (Benevolent Media is an official media partner of the film.)

We spoke with filmmaker Kurt Engfehr to learn more about the spark that ignited this empathy revolution and how he hopes to sustain it.

Your previous films have touched on politics, gun violence and health. Why did you want to explore the topic of empathy?

Two reasons. First, I'm always looking for interesting and unique (to me, anyway) stories, preferably ones I can learn something from. For instance, the last film I directed, Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, completely changed my diet and how I live my life. I felt that this film had the potential to do the same thing, to be a film that could help me grow as a person, and if I could convey that experience to an audience, then we might have a film that has an impact beyond just those who already agree with it.

Second, empathy as a topic is something I've been giving quite a bit of thought to over the last few years. I've become disenchanted at the level of public discourse and the rise of special interest politics and the ability of corporations and individuals to manipulate public policy for their own interests. I understand that's how the world works, but I'm thinking that maybe it's time to adjust that model and begin thinking about how our actions truly affect others, both on a personal level and on a societal scale.

Why do we have an "empathy deficit"?

Might as well ask why we have a "common sense deficit"!  I think there's a lot of reasons, from the way our country tends to put the accruement of profit before the welfare of its citizens, to the rising unemployment and poverty levels, which leave people less able to help or even think about others when they're so busy just trying to keep themselves above water.  Also, the increase in institutionalized bullying—from police stop-and-frisk policies to unions being under siege to bullying in schools—certainly adds to the declining lack of empathy.

When those who are supposed to be helping and protecting us are, instead, persecuting or showing outright hostility upon their charges, then what kind of message is that sending? And advertising and branding haven't helped. When we are constantly told, "You're the most important person; shouldn't you have the best (fill in the blank)?" that sort of message builds up in the subconscious. It certainly can't help matters any.  And, look, when a whole generation of people is called the "Me Generation," there's a certain lack of empathy inherent in that title.  That's a lot of cultural baggage that needs to be jettisoned in order to bring up those empathy levels.

Here at Benevolent Media, we believe in the power of storytelling and design to create positive and lasting social change. What, specifically, about film makes it such a powerful medium for social impact?

Film has a number of components that make it uniquely suited for acting as a change catalyst. Unlike the books or articles, many people can experience it at once, talking about it, sharing a connection with each other after.  And that can carry on to people setting up screening of the film for large groups of people which can then continue to spread.  And as opposed to the internet or even social media, film lasts. There's a permanence to it, which most content on the internet lacks.  But what separates film from other media is the ability to connect to an audience on an emotional level. Either through humor or stories of struggle and triumph, film can communicate complex ideas and topics to an audience in ways that they can relate to and understand.  Sometimes a good scene is more powerful than all the statistics in the world.

On the film's website, you say, "This is not just a film: it's an action cry." What do you want the audience to do after they watch this? And how will you track their progress?

We're hoping that the film is just the beginning of an empathy awakening. We're planning on having quite a few different audience participation components to our website, where, for example, testimonials or examples of empathy programs in their area can be shared with others.

As for tracking the progress? Well, levels of interaction on the website is the first level of involvement. Watching ideas and themes spread out into the world, either through social media or other related projects, is another way. Seeing an increase in empathy-oriented programs in schools and government is another way.  Finally, having empathy become something more than an idea given lip-service to by politicians and the media and instead becoming something people really try to practice and promote.

You plan to interview "social revolutionaries." Who are your ideal interviewees?

We're still in the early days of production so we're in the process of finding out who these people are.  If anyone out there knows of anyone they think might be a good interview for the film, please go to the website and let us know about them!

What was the most unexpected or surprising thing you discovered in setting out to make this film?

I was surprised to find out how many people think about things like, why do we need to choose profit over people? Or, why can't we have a functioning social safety net for people?  It's one thing to think these thoughts on your own, but it's reassuring to realize that others also think about them.  I think in some ways, the film will be a success just by showing others that they're not alone in caring for others, even if it's in kind of an abstract way.

What are the best resources out there for people who want to join the movement to increase empathy and compassion?

We're in the process of building a platform that would do just this: link people who are interested in the subject to empathic leaders and their projects.

To learn more and get involved: http://www.standinmyshoes.com/