The best documentaries do more than educate - they inspire real change
By Elizabeth Angell
Occupation: Dreamland addresses the issue of American Soldiers being encouraged to reenlist in Iraq (Photo courtesy of Occupation:Dreamland)
Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me (2004) was an unqualified hit. The documentary, which followed Spurlock as he ate nothing but McDonalds for 30 days and interviewed a string of experts on the rapidly worsening American obesity epidemic, was nominated for an Oscar. It won at Sundance and at countless other festivals. It earned glowing reviews and a wide theatrical release -- still a rarity for documentaries. It became the sixth highest grossing documentary in history, and it even made Spurlock some money -- almost miraculous for a documentarian.
But it was at an early community screening in Dallas that Spurlock realized his film might be more than a personal success. The movie was shown in a theater alongside Troy and Van Helsing, not a typical venue for nonfiction fare, and the audience for Super Size Me was filled with adolescents and teenagers. "These kids thought it was hilarious. They were laughing and having a really good time," says Spurlock. "That's when I realized the power of the film."
Spurlock set out to make a film about a looming social crisis -- obesity -- and chose an idiosyncratic personal odyssey as his form. He hoped his project would be a piece of informative entertainment, one that would make audiences laugh while it taught them something. He never imagined it would be a catalyst for verifiable change.
After seeing Super Size Me, kids began to boycott unhealthy school lunch programs. Spurlock rushed an educational version of Super Size Me into production -- minus a few four-letter words and one scene in which his girlfriend, Alex, discusses the deleterious effects his new diet had on their sex life -- and sent the film out to anyone who expressed interest. School boards requested the film for screenings, and state politicians showed it to their colleagues in legislatures across the country. School soft drink service and junk-food vending machines were banned in some districts. People stopped Spurlock on the street to tell him that his film changed the way their family ate, that they moved more now, that they'd lost weight and fended off impending diabetes or heart failure.
After years of talking up the power of moving images to change people's minds, Spurlock found himself at the helm of a film that had actually spurred people to action. He could now point to his own movie as proof that, "film and TV truly are the key to unlocking many of society's problems."
Like Spurlock, many documentary filmmakers are driven by social crises. They gravitate to stories that they hope will get to the heart of a political problem or shed light on a community in trouble. But how many of them make any kind of difference? And how can that social effect be measured? And beyond a good story well told, what ingredients ensure that a film makes an impact on the group or issue that it portrays?
Once in the U.S., Peter found a job working at Wal-Mart (photo courtesy of The Lost Boys of Sudan)
Lost Boys of Sudan is a very different kind of documentary than Super Size Me -- in tone, ambition, and ultimately reach -- but it is in many ways a model for social issue filmmakers. Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk's film tells the story of two young Sudanese refugees relocated to Texas by the U.S. State Department. The film begins in northern Kenya, where the boys lived in refugee camps after having fled persecution in Sudan. Lost Boys charts their move to the U.S., their trials finding work, their difficulty navigating a cultural landscape completely different from their own, and ultimately the almost insurmountable challenges they faced in getting the college education they wanted so badly.
The film is shot in a cinema verite style; in contrast to Spurlock, Shenk and Mylan never include themselves in the drama. But their desire to have an impact on the fate of Sudanese refugees in the U.S. was present from the film's conception. "The hardest part [of filming] was not being able to be the friends that these boys really needed," says Mylan. "So the moral deal that Jon and I made was that if we honestly told this story, it would be an eye-opener to Americans about how tough it is to come to this country and make your way. That would be how we would help."
Lost Boys was distributed theatrically for 8 months in 50 cities and then premiered on PBS as part of the "P.O.V." documentary series. Mylan and Shenk partnered with P.O.V. to create a stand-alone website, an educational version of the film, and extensive teaching guides. Their plan was to make information and resources available to people who were touched by any aspect of the movie, from its two charismatic protagonists, Peter and Santino, to the entire continent of Africa.
"We knew we needed to help the main characters of our film, the larger group of lost boys, refugees across the country, and the people of Sudan. It was daunting, but we couldn't not do any of that," says Mylan. "There are people who see Peter and Santino and don't see beyond that. And then there are those people who see the connection to Albanian refugees in their community or to the Darfur crisis, and that's great."
Mylan and Shenk have organized 1,000 community events and there have been many more educational and community screenings of their film, many of which served as fundraisers for refugee groups like Care and Doctors Without Borders.
The filmmakers helped local organizations find lost boys or other immigrants who would be part of panel discussions after screenings. A private funder interested in refugee issues provided outreach funding, allowing them to fly to screenings, like the one organized by the Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Richmond, VA, which resettled 47 lost boys in the area. At the screening, a family offered to take in a Sudanese woman and her toddler; others signed up to volunteer and mentor new immigrants. Other local panelists found support from audience members, and sponsors said their presence was enormously valuable. "That pairing [of the film and the panel discussion] was so crucial for our audience," says Darcie Olson, who used Lost Boys of Sudan to recruit volunteers for the Amnesty International effort surrounding the Darfur crisis. "Meeting the boys really helped them to see the scope of the crisis. And that's crucial in making sure people stay involved."
Seeing the film in a theater or meeting a lost boy at a Q&A weren't strictly necessary for eliciting a reaction; the film reached many thousands who saw it on PBS, which, despite a fuddy duddy (or hopelessly elitist, depending on who you ask) image, still reaches almost every American household with a television. John Kah, a 24-year-old air force veteran who usually worked nights, found himself home one evening and unable to sleep. He caught Lost Boys on TV and was deeply moved.
"No one was helping these young men adjust and succeed in their new country, and I was troubled," says Kah. "It seems to me that the time wasted by Americans watching television or sleeping in on Saturday mornings could be donated to these more than deserving young men."
He emailed Mylan and Shenk, who put him in touch with a refugee agency near his home in Spokane, WA. He and his wife have volunteered with that group ever since. The Kahs began with a family of Cuban refugees, helping them to enroll their children in school and to pass driving tests. Three lost boys from refugee camps in Kenya soon moved into their spare bedroom. Kah remembered from the film how important new winter clothes could be, so he purchased shoes and jackets for the young men after they arrived. He eventually taught each to drive, determined to help them achieve independence in their new lives.
Kah now believes in the power of documentary film. "They create awareness of social issues and illustrate ways in which normal individuals can remedy these issues," he says. A film, he notes, is a ready-made source of information, organized around a compelling narrative. "If a film hadn't been made, someone who wished to inform others or themselves [about an issue] would have to do so much work and research."
Mylan finds this kind of response particularly gratifying. Though she's grateful for all the money that's been raised and the volunteers recruited, she hopes that, above all, Lost Boys of Sudan will help to open up the debate about immigration in America. "The great intangible is the way you make people think in a different way," she says.
(In addition to opened minds, Mylan and Shenk happily witnessed tangible rewards for the boys to whom they had grown so close. As a result of the film, Peter was offered a full scholarship at Green Mountain College in Vermont, and Santino found a sponsor who paid his tuition at DeAnza Community College in San Jose, CA. Altogether, more than $500,000 was raised at screenings for an education fund for lost boys.)
For filmmakers like Mylan and Shenk who have a limited budget and expansive ambitions for the scope of their film, the support of an organization like P.O.V. is crucial. With almost 20 years of experience producing and broadcasting small independent documentaries, P.O.V. not only ensures that a film is seen on television, but that it will become a resource for community organizers and activists. They continue to work with each of the 15 to 20 films they sponsor each year for four to five years after. "We platform all of our films for ongoing use," says Cara Mertes, P.O.V.'s executive director.
They also provide a crucial service in managing expectations. "Of course we all want congress to pass a law the next day on whatever issue we feel is pressing," says Mertes, "but we also know we can see change working incrementally. We have individuals who give $100 after seeing a film or offer to buy a family's groceries. That can be as important as sparking a congressional discussion about immigration policy."
P.O.V. has also learned that filmmakers often make poor advocates; they need to partner with community groups and activists in order to make sure their film finds its audience. Robert West, whose North Carolina-based organization, Working Films, advises filmmakers on social issue marketing and outreach programs, agrees.
"Find the savviest and smartest allies on the issue covered by your film and invite them into your distribution plans early on," he says. "Invite them to see how the film might serve the needs of their effort and their interest group. Partnerships between filmmakers and allies will get constituents to turn out for screenings, and then harness that audience for local actions tied to larger national efforts. The actions offered for audiences after a screening should not be ephemeral or rhetorical, but sharply strategic."
Community organizers, says West, are typically much better prepared than filmmakers to give nitty gritty advice. "[Documentary filmmakers] don't usually have that perfect way to tap people in to the energy when the credits roll and the lights go up," he says.
"It's not enough to move people," agrees Mylan. "You have to say, 'Here's what you can do.'"
Filmmakers are also occasionally guilty of seeing their film as the main attraction and using community organizations and activists as extensions of their marketing plan. That would be a serious mistake if their aim is to truly do some good, cautions West. "Filmmakers must be prepared not just to say 'How can grassroots activism help my film?' but 'How can my movie help the movement?'" he says.
Many filmmakers discover that outreach begins long before the first screenings. "It begins when you start your research," says filmmaker Marion Lipschutz, a veteran of many documentaries whose most recent film, The Education of Shelby Knox, about a teenage sex-education activist in Lubbock, TX, was a P.O.V. production. "We made copious notes, and we stayed in the loop with all those people as we were filming. We figured out which groups were good, which ones were full of shit, which journalists would be interested."
Many filmmakers report that the more targeted the outreach, the more useful their film can be. Twist of Faith, a film about the abuse suffered by an Ohio man at the hands of a Catholic priest, which aired on HBO in 2005, was used to influence several state legislatures deliberating whether to extend the statute of limitations on childhood abuse cases. Twist of Faith's director Kirby Dick worked with victims' groups to make copies of his film available to legislators and lobbyists. "The film really helped these influential people understand why these experiences stayed with victims for their whole life, why they couldn't come forward until much later to confront their abusers," he says.
Technology is perhaps the most potent ally any filmmaker has in his or her efforts to make a difference. Without an internet site, a casual viewer's piqued interest would go squandered. Now, it is captured and directed to local volunteer organizations or to a fundraising effort. "We used to say that the film never ends, but now it's true," says Mertes. "Everything is faster, better, and more effective. That's terribly exciting for our goals. We can reach out nationally and internationally, and we can tap into whole new lists of potential supporters."
It has also, of course, provided new viewers for documentaries. Netflix carries all of P.O.V.'s films, for example, and more than 75,000 have been rented. And many of those viewers follow their sympathy to the websites of Lost Boys of Sudan or The Education of Shelby Knox.
Digital technology is also being used in new ways that have more in common with scrappy political agitation than old-school grassroots organizing. West reports that he has been working with two young filmmakers, Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, who recently completed a film about a platoon of soldiers in Iraq called Occupation: Dreamland. (Scott died suddenly and tragically in March.) One sequence, a particularly powerful episode involving a young man's disgust at being urged to re-enlist rather than go home, where he'll "probably end up living with Momma going to a small community college somewhere," will be uploadable as a six-minute segment on iTunes. West hopes that this excerpt might be useful to organizations spearheading anti-recruitment efforts in high schools and on college campuses where large numbers of students have iPods. For students who might not agree to sit through a 90-minute film, this mini-movie could be particularly compelling. "That's an important six-minute tool that activists wouldn't have had in their hands a few years ago," says West.
Social issue documentaries have been so influential in recent years that they are beginning to attract the attention of for-profit producers, as well as not-for-profit outlets like P.O.V. "Documentaries can make a difference and make money," says Diane Weyermann, executive vice president of documentary production at Participant Productions. Participant, whose website proclaims it is "changing the world one story at a time," is the most notable example of Hollywood's interest in do-gooder efforts. Committed to producing films with a strong message, in 2005 Participant released Murderball, Syriana, North Country, and Good Night, and Good Luck. In addition to the usual mainstream promotion campaigns, they organized outreach projects for each of their films and their website lists resources where people can go to find out more information, donate money, or volunteer their services.
"What is crucial about our work is that every film's release, whether fiction or nonfiction, will be accompanied by a social action campaign, because the primary goal is to have a positive effect on social change," says Weyermann.
Some not-for-profit veterans are skeptical of whether a conventional production company can pledge to a program of social advocacy. P.O.V.'s Mertes wonders whether Participant will remain committed to making its films available to organizers cheaply and whether they will continue to support outreach efforts after a few months or even years, when it's time to focus on the next film. "I do think it makes a difference when the bottom line is selling tickets," says Mertes.
Regardless of whether a documentary is better served by a for-profit or not-for-profit company, almost everyone agrees that the best thing a film can do for a cause is to tell a great story. "There are a lot of films that get made about very worthy issues, but they go nowhere because it wasn't successful on all the levels a film has to work on," says Rose Rosenblatt, co-director of The Education of Shelby Knox. "They can't be pedantic or didactic. They must be entertaining and large."
Elizabeth Angell is a freelance writer living in New York. She recently received a MFA in creative writing from Columbia and is at work on her first book.