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Put movies in the hands of movements

Contributed by and

“Making the movie and getting it to screen is only 50% of the job. What to do when the lights come up — how to harness that energy in the room… well that’s the other 50%.”

George Stoney
In Sum

By telling a personal story, documentary film can make an otherwise difficult-to-approach issue accessible. Filmmakers and activists, working together, can collaborate to make a film a story-driven lever for change.

Story-driven documentaries change minds, attitudes and policies. But they reach their fullest potential when tightly woven into the campaigns and events of organizers working on the issues. As activist filmmakers, here are a couple of key rules my colleagues and I have learned:

Create mutually beneficial relationships between filmmakers and organizers. Authentic partnerships start with the filmmaker asking the movement, “What can my film do for you?” Not, “what can you do for my film?” Certainly, the movement has much to offer the filmmaker in return (and we’ll get to that) but it’s important to begin with this frame.

Look for five to ten organizations to partner with — some might be small and scrappy, others may have national reach. Ask them for the strategy; don’t guess. Effective conversations start with questions like: “What are your current programs and priorities and how could our film support them?” “What do you want audiences to do when the lights come up?” Partner organizations have resources to offer in return: online tools that can be embedded into a film’s website, information that can be added to a film’s screening guide or curriculum, constituents and allies eager to spread the word, and actions that audience members can take. All of this creates a cycle which builds momentum for both the film and the movement.

Move from “film timeline” to “organizing timeline.” The first year or so of a film’s life is driven by the film timeline: you take it around the festival circuit, bring it to theaters or community events and, if you’re lucky, broadcast it. This is a great time to experiment together. For example, you might try out a mobile app where you ask festival audiences to sign a petition while they are still in their seats.

But at a certain point, a filmmaker shifts to “organizing time” — especially when there is a timely, urgent ongoing campaign that needs the film. Community screenings, house parties, online streaming: all these traditional venues for distribution can be utilized strategically by organizations and individual activists on the ground. They might use screening events to get more folks to sign up for an upcoming national day of action and then use clips to energize the crowd on the day of the action. Or they might use house party screenings and discussions to mobilize their constituents around a pending piece of legislation that needs that extra push. At this stage, a campaign’s needs and timeline inform when and how the film is used and catalyze the long-term change everyone is working toward.

Potential Pitfalls

The most important part of being an “independent” storyteller is just that: your independence. While you have to balance the needs of your organizing partners with the needs of your narrative, the story has to come first. You might be making a film with Greenpeace, but you are not making it for them. It’s critical that this relationship is understood by all parties — the organizers, the press, as well as opponents who, given half the chance, will cry, “Propaganda!” The key to this synergy is not just the perception of independence, but its reality.


Judith Helfand, a Peabody Award-winning filmmaker, is best known for her ability to take the dark, cynical worlds of chemical exposure, heedless corporate behavior and environmental injustice and make them personal, resonant, highly charged and entertaining. Her films include “A Healthy Baby Girl,” its sequel “Blue Vinyl” (co-directed with Daniel B. Gold) and “Everything’s Cool” (also co-directed with Gold). Educator, “field explorer” and social entrepreneur, Judith co-founded both Working Films and Chicken & Egg Pictures.

Anna Lee is manager of filmmaker and partner services at Working Films, one of the leading independent media organizations focused on the art of engagement. Co-founded by Judith Helfand and Robert West, Working Films brings persuasive and provocative documentary films to long-term community organizing and activism. Since joining Working Films, Anna has worked on national audience engagement strategies for numerous high profile documentaries. She currently coordinates Reel Engagement (http://workingfilms.org/article.php?id=302), a ground-breaking, thematic residency series for filmmakers and nonprofits. Anna is also an organizer for educational, racial and environmental justice in Working Films’ hometown of Wilmington, NC where she lives with her husband and son.


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