Can documentary bring about social change?

While documentary film has taken many different forms since the term was coined in 1926, there has been a continual presence of documentary film makers using the form to further social change , as argued by Thomas Waugh in his history of 'committed' documentary (Waugh, 1984). Until now they have remained a small sub-section of the genre.

Over the past decade cinema-goers and web-users have experienced a rise in social issue documentaries  - with social activists becoming documentary filmmakers and documentary filmmakers becoming social activists.  Tools for documentary film production and dissemination have become more widely available, campaigning organisations and nonprofits have recognised the importance of media projects, and documentary film makers have jumped at the opportunity to receive funding for films on topics they care about. A reincarnation of Social Issue Documentary as located in the activist and alternative filmmaking movements of the 1960s and 1970s has well and truly arrived (Tripp, 2012).

Given that many films are now funded by nonprofits furthering social change it's now more important than ever that these projects are designed, monitored and evaluated in such a way as to ensure maximum 'social impact' and value for money. What criteria can be followed to achieve the most impact?

To date, little has been done to try and answer this question.This is largely due to difficulties measuring and defining impact across the board, with individual films targeting different audiences, wanting to achieve different goals, and using new platforms to raise awareness about issues raised.

Film has been studied extensively as ‘entertainment, as narrative, and as cultural event, but the study of film as an agent of social change is still in its infancy.’ (Karlin and Johnson, 2011)

This post will point to existing research on defining and measuring the impact of social issue documentaries, and the key organisations engaging with these complexities, before looking at a case study with wide-reaching national and international impact.

Relevant Publications

  • The first comprehensive answer to the question of documentary impact was published in 2004 by Whiteman. His coalition framework called for an assessment of documentary impact that went beyond traditional methods such as audience size and box office receipts, including the entire filmmaking process and taking into account impacts on both policy and individuals engaging with the field. This publication is unfortunately only available with a journal subscription.
  • In 2008 The Fledgling Fund expanded on this concept and introduced five distinct impacts of documentary film campaigns, from the creation of a compelling story, to awareness, engagement, a stronger movement and finally achieving social change. The full report, an abridged version, and the diagram are all available to download from the Fledgling Fund's website.
  • Clark and Abrash's 'Social Justice Documentary: Designing for Impact', published in 2011, provides a comprehensive review of the field. Through an analysis of case studies they call for strategic design to be applied to all stages of the documentary production cycle. Download the report for free here.
  • Finally, look out for a new framework being developed by a team at the University of Illinois, which will use aggregated data gathered from social media feeds to create a base line of the frequency and substance of information shared about a topic, before comparing this with after the film's launch. This has huge potential for filmmakers' ability to evaluate impact. Information is scarce about this, but the team are due to present a paper at iConf in Berlin this year.

Key Organisations to watch

These are the main organisations trying to answer questions around defining, measuring, and planning for impact.

To follow these organisations and others involved in how documentary film can  bring about social change, subscribe to my Twitter list 'Documentary & Impact'.