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Doc U on the Road Recap: Brooklyn, NY

By Deepthi Welaratna

"When I was tackling the big issue, I could have gotten lost in it. But I realized I have to tell the most compelling, engaging story I can to get people to watch.

"It has to be about the story first."

- Roger Ross Williams, Academy Award-Winning Filmmaker

Doc U's most recent panel was held in one of Brooklyn's artsiest neighborhoods down by the river, DUMBO, courtesy of hosting partner and award-winning PBS documentary program POV. POV opened up their new screening room to the public for the first time ever to host a lively conversation about how documentary film can best advocate for social change.

Opening remarks from POV's Executive Director Simon Kilmurry and IDA's Executive Director Michael Lumpkin highlighted that this panel in Brooklyn was the culmination of a long-standing partnership.

Moderator Robert Bahar, writer-producer responsible for the landmark film on immigration issues Made in LA, began by asking the audience: How do films change the world?

Audience members began with broad answers-"bring awareness," "inspire people," "connect with viewers"-but also gave more concrete answers-"Put pressure on government," "change perceptions," "change policies, laws and institutions."

The goals of the evening's conversation, as laid out by Bahar, were to establish:

  • What are realistic goals for how a film can make change?
  • What makes an effective campaign?
  • What is the capacity of a campaign?

Academy Award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams took to the microphone first to set the stage for a clip of his 2010 short film Music by Prudence. The film tells the inspiring story of Zimbabwean singer/songwriter Prudence Mabhena, who was born with a severe disability in a country where physical disabilities are seen as a curse and the afflicted are often disowned by their families.

"I didn't set out to make a film that would change the world," said Williams. But that's exactly what ended up happening when the film was picked up by HBO and then shortlisted and nominated for an Academy Award.

When people who had watched the Academy Awards began contacting him wanting to know how they could engage more with the issues, Williams realized he needed an actual campaign. Fledgling Fund made this possible. Williams partnered with Human Rights Watch to bring the subject of his film to the US and give her media training to become an effective advocate for the issues that were important to her. The UN, the World Bank, and UNICEF signed on as partners.

Williams believes the biggest impact the film and its campaign had was in Zimbabwe. When Prudence arrived back in her country, hundreds of journalists were on hand for her return. Her father was there, crying and apologizing for abandoning her. She made a speech about the wasted potential of disabled children strengthened by her media training. The two major newspapers in the country had editorials taking the position that Zimbabwe had to change the way disabled people were treated.

Rachel Libert followed with a clip from her film Semper Fi: Always Faithful. The film follows a retired marine looking for the cause of his young daughter's death who discovers the cover up of one of the largest water contamination incidents in history of the US. The film follows his transformation from a drill instructor to an activist.

Libert and her team drew in environmental organizations as partners, primarily through the movement in the US for regulation of toxic chemicals. "We thought the film had a narrow but important niche," Libery said. But for partners, they saw an opportunity to cross boundaries through the film, to access the military community they'd never had access to before.

The film's most recent activist role has been on Capitol Hill, where there's pending legislation to provide healthcare for people exposed to chemicals in camp Lejeune. In June, Libert's team was invited to screen the film a week before a key vote in the Senate on the legislation. The following week the legislation passed unanimously. Libert stated, "We can't take full credit for that but it was nice to be part of that movement."

Moderator Robert Bahar took the opportunity to screen a newly revised clip from his 2007 film Made in LA-a clip created two full years later to be part of a campaign to influence the debate on immigration. The piece was picked up by bloggers covering immigration and faith communities who hadn't necessarily taken a position. As part of the screening campaign, more than 600 faith-based screenings took place around the country.

Diana Barrett next spoke about her journey from academic to founder of the Fledgling Fund, where chosen films have garnered six Emmy awards and six Academy awards in just six years.

Barrett shared a list of 10 key issues around successful outreach, including building outreach into the early stages of the budget, connecting with effective partners, and creating unique engagement tools. 

Cynthia Lopez, Executive Vice President and Co-Executive Producer of POV, went back to the origins of the program to contextualize how the role of documentary film in social change movements has evolved. In 1998, POV's core mission was to use documentaries as a centerpiece to build public attention around social issues. The model was known as high-impact TV, envisioned as a multiple interaction structure as opposed to a one-way broadcast.

Today, POV focuses on three components: digital strategies, communications and marketing strategies, and audience engagement and outreach. Lopez screened a clip of the very successful documentary Food, Inc. She believes the secret to success was that the filmmaker's goals were very specific-to pump up the volume on the issue of food manufacturing in the US and to discuss food safety.

With a stellar line up of panelists, there was limited time for questions at the end. Questions ranged from understanding overseas audiences (it's a challenge) to specifics about how funders work with filmmakers to create campaigns together (it's a long-term relationship).

The turnout was inspiring on a chilly night, and the audience and panelists enjoyed a reception at POV's airy new space in DUMBO. Thanks to all who helped make this stop on our tour a great success!

Doc U is the International Documentary Association's series of educational seminars and workshops for aspiring and experienced documentary filmmakers. Taught by artists and industry experts, participants receive vital training and insight on various topics including: fundraising, distribution, licensing, marketing, and business tactics.

Doc U on the Road: Brooklyn, NY

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Made possible by a grant from
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences