After Guth Gafa had been so interesting and enjoyable I was very much looking forward to the Moving Worlds Symposium organised by FOMACS (Forum on Migration and Communications) in the IFI in Dublin this past weekend. The programme was excellent and the speakers included South African filmmaker Francois Verster, Active Voice director Ellen Schneider from San Francisco, digital strategy expert Howard Pyle from New York and Sarah Mosses who works for the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation in the UK.
The weekend started out with a screening of Francois Verster’s intriguing documentary The Mothers’ House following the life of a family in post-Apartheid South Africa. At the Q&A that followed the screening Francois talked a little bit about the ethics of documentary making and the fact that docs cannot claim to be objective but filmmakers can work with integrity. Creative documentary can be a great starting point for further discussion on social justice issues and this tends to work best if the audience is allowed to draw their own conclusions rather than being told what to think, for instance through excessive use of voice overs.
The next morning we started with an excellent presentation by Active Voice executive director Ellen Schneider who showed us a fascinating case study (a film called Welcome to Shelbyville) and talked us through how her organisation works. Active Voice develop social change campaigns by using stories in the form of creative documentaries as mechanisms for action. By carefully bringing the perspectives and needs of creatives, funders, communities and advocates together projects can benefit each participant in different ways. The filmmaker will, for instance, hold onto her rights and creative integrity but it is also possible to create multiple versions of a film or special cuts with the requirements of grantmakers, constituents and social change advocates in mind. Ellen’s advice is to aim for highest quality content, know exactly what you want and make this clear to all involved at the start of any project, be open to think outside the box and embrace opportunities and a participative approach.
After a sunny lunch at the Temple Bar Market with some of the symposium participants we headed back inside the IFI for Howard Pyle’s talk on why the internet is not (just) a movie theatre. Howard, who works ‘at the creative intersection of communication systems’, talked about how the message of a film or project is at least as important as the content and needs to be carefully considered. Message, audiences, communities, channels and allies all play their part in propelling a campaign forward and creating a positive multiplier effect. It is vital to engage influencers and evangelists who genuinely care about your message and a better world for all. In order to do this a targeted and creative mix of communication strategies is needed. We looked at four case studies (social change doc trailers) and in smaller groups tried to come up with the best strategies for each of them to spread the message of the film. The learning from everybody’s input went to show how bringing together people from various national and international constituencies all of whom have social justice at heart is a very powerful way of teasing out ideas that can have a real impact. Having said that, it was equally valuable to see which aspects we ‘missed’ during our brainstorming sessions as this helped figuring out where we had still most to learn.
Having had some interesting conversations with Sarah Mosses the day before, I was really looking forward to Sunday morning to hear her talk more about the intriguing work she does. Sarah produces Good Screenings for the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation and also works on distribution and outreach for various doc film projects. Like the other three presenters she spoke very eloquently about how documentaries can be used as part of a larger social movement strategy. Britdoc fund new documentary filmmakers and offer innovative new ways for finding (e.g. Good Pitch and Films For Good workshops) and distributing (e.g. Good Films) content. Her tips are to make your film’s story as compelling as possible, to not ever sell a film to only one distributor and to join industry networks, such as Shooting People, and build longterm working relationships inside and outside your sector.
In the final panel discussion that followed Fomacs director Áine O’Brien and the four speakers emphasised again that social engagement and the collaboration and consideration of various constituents (within the context of a film particularly also those with opposing opinions) involved in a social change campaign are essential in order for it to be believable and ultimately successful. Elements of this process include the core story which moves the audience, a targeted follow-on strategy to go with it, an understanding of supply and demand in terms of the product, how constituencies actually use the created content, financial models that work and are sustainable and measuring the impact of the campaign.
Finally, kudos to FOMACS for bringing together such a stellar and relevant group of creatives who were truly inspiring each in their own right. The fact that they generously shared their expertise and were very approachable throughout the whole weekend goes to show that collaboration and communication is key no matter what side of the process we are on.
Some additional, useful links for doc filmmakers, social change activists, NGO media reps, social justice bloggers and anyone else who is interested in films and campaigns that make a difference:
BeCause Foundation (promotes social change through the power of film)
Babelgum (ad-based, free internet and mobile TV platform including quality short films)
Center for Social Media (showcases and analyses media for public knowledge and action)
Fledgling Fund (supports innovative media projects that target social issues)
FOMACS (is a collaborative public media project of the Centre for Transcultural Research and Media Practice at Dublin Institute of Technology producing unique human-interest stories on the topic of immigration and integration in Ireland)
The Prenups (Active Voice tips for a more productive relationship between filmmakers and funders)
Voice of My Own (Scottish org producing films with and for young people)
Welcoming America (building a nation of neighbours)
Some quotes from the weekend:
‘Trust in your work, you can never tell what impact it might have.’ (Howard)
‘The film is not the end of the story.’ (Áine)
‘I defy anyone to launch social movements without these stories.’ (Ellen)
‘Never sell your film to only one distributor.’ (Sarah)
‘My films always turn out to be better than the original proposal.’ (Francois)