The Evolution of Impact: The Future of Social Change and Nonfiction Storytelling
The conversation about documentary impact has undergone a number of shifts since impact producing began to emerge as a practice within the documentary field around 20 years ago. Today it is almost expected that a social issue documentary film will be accompanied by an impact campaign to help ensure its story will reach audiences and motivate them towards social change, deeper engagement with a story’s themes and further learning. But earlier, things were different—the argument had to be made that some documentary filmmakers should focus on impact and to develop best practices for engaging audiences around a film and its themes. Once this notion was accepted, the conversation moved on to the most effective ways to measure impact. Later, the focus shifted to how to professionalize impact work and sustain the work of impact producers. Now, as impact producers and strategists who have worked in this space through most of these shifts, we suspect the field is moving through its next evolution: a consideration of the ways filmmakers of color have defined impact, the structural barriers filmmakers of color face in the industry and its implications for impact.
The documentary impact enterprise has always focused on the power of particular films to build understanding and shift audience perspectives as the foundational starting point for action, whether that involves changing peoples’ behaviors, the choices they make, the steps they take to change institutions or policies, or inspiring them to build community. Successful impact campaigns can be discrete and focused, like the one accompanying Chelsea Hernandez’s Building the American Dream that aimed to educate audiences and key decision makers about the exploitation of construction workers in Texas and the need for rest breaks, and which contributed to the groundswell of coverage about the need for worker rights and protections. Among other shifts linked to increased presence and pressure, Texas Congressman Sylvia Garcia filed a federal bill to require rest breaks for all construction workers in July 2022. Or, they can take a broader view and focus on building movements, just like Jennifer Brea did with her film Unrest about the disease Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), which helped to draw patients and allies into organizing efforts, inspiring protests and strengthening their disability justice work. They can be much broader still, aiming to raise mass awareness as Laura Poitras did with Citizenfour about NSA surveillance, which deepened public discourse sparked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden.
We need a range of campaigns, from the small and mighty to the big and far-reaching; at every scale and scope, impact campaigns increase the impact potential of social issue storytelling. Increasingly, however, we are seeing that campaigns focused on specific communities and discrete outcomes are less able to find the support they need to be effective—specifically the appropriate level of funding and ample time to do the actual work. Filmmakers of color, who face structural barriers at every turn when attempting to advance their own storytelling on their own terms, and who see value and impact potential in engaging their own communities, are the casualties of this trend.
Today streamers with deep pockets and commercial dominance contribute to this by privileging films that will garner broad reach, pushing what they perceive as more “relatable” content (read: white, male). Increasingly they determine what audiences get to see and make choices that trend toward uniformity, not just in the stories but also in the storytellers.
This has an impact on impact. Anecdotal evidence shows that when (or if) impact campaigns are permitted, the commercial streamers favor those that have “broad reach” (read again: white, male). And they favor campaigns that don’t rock the boat too much. This can force impact teams to neutralize the power and potential of their strategic interventions. Instead, they advance campaigns to educate audiences about issues and policies rather than take clear positions on them. They build campaigns to “humanize the other” rather than name the people and policies that perpetuate harm. The prevailing notion is that for a campaign to be noteworthy and “strategic” it must focus on shifting the hearts, minds and actions of mainstream Americans (read: white audiences) who hold positional power (be they voters, parents, business or political leaders).
As argued in Beyond Empathy, films and campaigns that focus on building empathy of mainstream audiences are based on a perceived need to prove the humanity of the featured person or community. The unspoken message communicated to filmmakers of color is that the most important audiences are white; because they are the ones who, if properly engaged, could redirect their emotions, resources, or policies to the benefit of the disenfranchised. Implicit in this logic is that the communities on screen should not be centered as the audience for the film or campaign. In other words, after a century of nonfiction storytelling about communities of color for the consumption by white audiences, little has changed in our industry.
What happens when the documentaries that dominate the marketplace are stories green-lit by white people, that are directed by white people, primarily talking to white people, often about what they think about Black, Brown, and Indigenous people? And what happens when filmmakers of color create work about communities of color within an industry that has deemed their communities as less central, and certainly not strategic?
In this environment, filmmakers of color can experience pressure to internalize the white gaze and spend precious time and energy providing context in their films for white audiences, shape storytelling to trigger an emotional response that aligns with impact goals centered around white audiences, or avoid images that might reinforce negative stereotypes about our communities. Storytelling like this waters down the depth and nuance of work made by people of color for people of color. The near-constant pressure to center the white gaze speaks to the perniciousness of white supremacy in our field.
Such pressures also rob filmmakers of color of the opportunity to speak directly to our own communities, unmediated by the white gaze or comprehension. People of color lose out on opportunities to prioritize our own concerns in conversations, examine our own biases, explore the nuances of our own experiences with each other rather than capitalize on essentialist identity politics.
Impact campaigns that center a white gaze rest on a few problematic assumptions:
1) White audiences must fully comprehend the humanity or experiences of communities of color for real social change to occur. This presumes that people of color are not themselves primary agents of change or have a role to play in impact campaigns about us. These are the underpinnings of white saviorism. It also underestimates the desire and capacity of white audiences to appreciate storytelling told through a different gaze, unedited for their consumption.
2) White filmmakers can or should be able to tell any story about any community. White people documenting the lives of people of color has a long history from the roots of anthropology to the present. And it has persisted, cloaked in arguments about the need for neutrality, objectivity or freedom of expression. The cumulative effect of one century of documentary storytelling told through the lens of white makers has a cost to culture and society, robbing us of opportunities to reflect on our lives and experiences through other, more nuanced, and culturally rooted points of view.
3) A film has the ability to change white audiences in a single stroke. Films can and do spark new ideas, and challenge long held beliefs, but that moment can be fleeting. Unless a film and campaign that is focused on changing the minds of white people about people of color is designed around a sophisticated long-term organizing or narrative change strategy, which ensures audience members will be folded into community building efforts where they are continually and meaningfully engaged, it is unlikely their minds will remain changed. Because those audience members will just return right back into a society saturated with white supremacist media and ideas, to the “family and friend” relationships and contexts that upheld and enabled those ideas in the first place.
Well-planned screenings can move audience members to sign a petition or take some action, and that is important. They can shape attitudes for a time or plant a seed. But for long term change, organizers need to water those seeds or change remains theoretical. And that requires resources and time that the field has not stepped up to support at this scale. That’s why impact campaigns that zero in on changing the minds of people who need to be convinced of an issue in question are hamstrung from the get-go; it’s precisely because these audiences are unreliable. It is a reason communication strategists who focus on changing the minds of the “moveable middle” tend to focus on short term “wins,” tying these efforts to immediate actions that people can take (sign this petition, vote on this bill). It’s also why an over-reliance on this kind of impact campaign is draining our movements of precious resources and energy. And yet, that’s where the field of impact has been for a long time.
But there’s another way.
One of the most powerful examples of documentary impact came from an Emmy-nominated Lifetime miniseries, Surviving R Kelly. The six-part miniseries featured in-depth interviews with women who chronicled abuse at the hands of the singer. Executive produced by writer/filmmaker/activist dream hampton, the series centered on testimonies of sexual abuse of Black women by a powerful Black celebrity at the height of the national conversation around #MeToo, which had largely focused on the victimization of white women. The film’s production and impact strategies were not only devised by Black women, they were for Black women. The resulting impact campaign was the culmination of decades of activism led by Black women, including Tarana Burke, the woman who coined the term “Me Too” and who served as an interviewee and advisor for the campaign. The result: the series was the highest rated programming on the platform to date, was the most social with 2.6 million people live tweeting, resulted in a 27% increase in calls to the The National Sexual Assault Hotline and the singer was dropped from his label.
Perhaps most importantly for the survivors, in June 2022 R. Kelly was convicted of using his fame to sexually abuse young fans over a span of decades, and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Not only did the film reach a mainstream audience, but the impact campaign amplified the voices of Black survivors and cultural critics who provided nuanced context around the issue, and directed viewers’ pain and anger towards organizations that could channel those emotions into action that made real impact in the lives of survivors.
The campaign also had a ripple effect in our own documentary community, contributing to calls to ensure survivors of sexual assault are connected to therapeutic resources during and after documentary production. The force of change coming from a focus on Black survivors, who did not need to be convinced they deserved to be centered or considered, contributed to change in conversations and practices throughout the documentary community. And changes in the documentary community’s practices have begun to shift some of our funders’ perceptions who are quickly understanding that care-centered filmmaking must be financially supported.
We have the opportunity to pour our limited resources into the filmmakers and audiences who already care about our communities and who are compelled to do right by them. We have the opportunity to saturate society with storytelling by filmmakers of color talking to audiences of color about our communities in ways that deepen conversations and advance new narratives on our own terms. It can be a smart and strategic approach that carries society forward through the force of the current it creates. This is why the terrain of documentary impact, largely propelled by people of color and other marginalized communities (and allies), has been recalibrating its focus and recognizing that a film’s impact is first felt by those closest to the film—the participants and film teams, then it slowly expands outward to the communities at the center of the story, then to other stakeholders, and then finally to the audience who may be disconnected to the lived realities of those documented on camera. This new focus suggests that the work of impact must begin during production, so that the very process of the storytelling has a net positive impact on those engaged in the filmmaking process, before any attempts at large-scale societal impact.
Largely the shift in documentary impact is being driven by organizations and collectives who refuse to be overlooked in the filmmaking or distribution of stories about them. Examples are FWD-Doc, which aims to build the power of D/deaf and disabled filmmakers in documentary and audiences; the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective which has been advocating for centering the expertise of undocumented people not only as sources of stories but as creators, artists, and audiences; and the Documentary Accountability Working Group, which has been developing a set of values, guiding principles and ethics that inform filmmaking practice and duty of care for participants and audiences. Intermediaries like Firelight Media and Working Films have begun asking potential grantees how they will be accountable to the communities at the center of their storytelling. Altogether, they and others concerned with documentary impact are asking:
Why are audiences of color and other marginalized communities who have a direct stake in the issues not being prioritized? When audiences of color are forced to consume stories about our communities filtered through a white filmmaker’s gaze or interpretation, not only does this reinforce our second-class status as audiences, it can truly do harm. A core tenet of impact campaigns should be to do no harm. The trauma of having to witness harm to your community under the guise of building awareness or empathy among white audiences, is no longer being tolerated. As Algerian-American filmmaker Assia Boundaoui argued in her piece for the Los Angeles Times, “We seemingly cannot be viewed outside of notions of terrorism and violence.” The centrality of trauma in films about communities of color compounds the material harm that our communities face in society. It flattens our experiences to what harms us, and how we overcome it, and it puts the focus on the experience of trauma, rather than on the people, institutions or policies that perpetuate the harm.
In addition, audiences of color who have a stake in the issues depicted on screen have a powerful role to play in movement building. Learning and change takes time. It is premised on relationships and trust and community. It requires repeated encounters with people and ideas that are pointing in a new direction. We should use film to spark new understanding among audiences that are already in community with others who have a commitment to the intended change. Because when people have the opportunity to turn new ideas over and examine them in-relationship, that is a more reliable and sustainable way to ensure those ideas become more and more embodied.
Who is telling the story and what is the lens through which they are understanding the story and shaping it? In today’s reality, when a filmmaker pursues a story about a community that is not their own, it is now recognized that it is their responsibility to consider how to be accountable to that community: what relationships of power are in place; who could be harmed through the process of making the film; who could be harmed through its release; how being entrusted with someone’s story will leave them better off, etc. The field is moving to a place that recognizes the filmmaking process is as important and constitutive of the final product. It also involves many circles of participants, from the filmmaker to the people on screen, to communities who have the most at stake.
People of color are well positioned to produce storytelling that weaves a narrative fabric that is more representative and strengthens society. White supremacy has a way of rooting down into all of us irrespective of color and seeding harmful ideas that show up in our work and daily lives. (See Farihah Zaman’s piece A Question of Perspective in Reverse Shot.) But people of color, who have the most at stake when it comes to getting the story right and doing justice to communities they are a part of, are more likely to mitigate toxic narratives that could do harm. While it’s certainly no guarantee, people of color are more likely to be aware of narratives that do harm, more likely to notice them and root them out before they get too far.
In addition to the beautiful and powerful storytelling that filmmakers of color can produce, the process itself can be a transformative experience. The agency found in a filmmaker of color being able to tell their own story on their own terms, to excavate their own histories to inform, heal and strengthen their own communities, can be deeply meaningful, empowering, and liberatory. Equally so for the people on screen whose stories are held with care and dignity and agency. That too should be considered central to impact.
Social change will be fueled by nonfiction storytelling that challenges and does not tolerate white supremacy, that adds nuance and strength to those ideas and eventually saturates public discourse. True social transformation for a society steeped in white supremacy will come from exposure to an abundance of storytelling by, for, and about people of color on our own terms, through our own lenses, whether white audiences can relate to those stories or not, whether white audiences can fully comprehend different experiences or not.