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A Filmmakers' Guide to Capitol Hill

By Will Jenkins

Many documentary filmmakers are driven by a desire not only to tell compelling stories but also to have an impact on public policies and laws. When such filmmakers see an injustice or abuse, they may make great sacrifices to bring the truth to light in hopes that change will come. The journey often brings them to the doors of Congress, where so many policies are made and amended.

This can lead to an awkward interaction with policymakers, who at times are part of the problem, yet whose leadership is needed to be part of the solution.

Having worked in communications for over a decade with social change organizations and on Capitol Hill, I have heard frustrations vented from both sides--certain politicians may seem too risk-averse, too beholden to powerful interest groups, while certain activists may appear too idealistic, too dogmatic to accept any compromise. And if you see a kid coming at you with a videocamera...

However, filmmakers and policymakers have much to gain by trying to understand each other better and by finding ways to work together more productively, when appropriate. After all, many policymakers, like many filmmakers, are doing this because they want to make a difference, to save the world--or at least some piece of it.

To put it another way, filmmakers create compelling stories that need action, while lawmakers take actions that need compelling stories, in order for the public to understand and support these actions. For example, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter is an outspoken advocate for food safety. Last year she introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act to make sure antibiotics used in farm animals do not harm humans. However, as she told Reuters news service, "We're up against a pretty strong lobby. It will really come down to whether members of Congress want to protect their constituents or agribusiness."

Fortuitously, the documentary film Food, Inc. was released around the same time. According to Sonny Sinha, one of her staffers, Rep. Slaughter established a relationship with filmmakers Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein and then hosted a special screening for policymakers in Washington, DC. This high-profile screening increased the film's national exposure, which brought food-safety issues to the forefront of public discussion. Rep. Slaughter followed the screening with a Congressional hearing on the same topic. By the end of the year, her bill had 100 co-sponsors and a related food safety bill was passed in the House of Representatives.


A middle-aged white man in a green tshirt, suspenders, jeans, and a white cowboy hat stands in front of a farm filled with cows
From Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. (Prod.: Elise Pearlstein). Courtesy of Participant Media 

This is one example of how filmmaking can have a positive, synergistic relationship with policymaking.

The Policymaking Process

If you want your film to impact policy, it is important to have a clear strategy of where in the policymaking process it can have maximum impact.

Here are some potential entry points in that process:

1) Raising Awareness--Determine your target audience (the public, lawmakers, agency officials, staff, etc.) and find a message or story that will motivate them to action.

2) Building/Promoting a Coalition--Your film may raise the profile of a coalition already doing good work on the issue or inspire a new coalition to form when people realize they share a common cause.

3) Introducing a Bill--A powerful film can inspire lawmakers or their staff to work on new legislation to remedy the problem. The introduction of a bill helps raise the profile of an issue.

4) Holding a Hearing/Investigation--As noted in the example above, films can raise the profile of otherwise routine hearings and help build momentum.

5) Passing a Bill (House, Senate, Conference, President)--A bill's passage usually requires grassroots support. A film can help mobilize the public engagement needed to achieve the passage of a bill.

6) Enforcing Current Law--Sometimes the right laws are already in place but are not properly enforced. A film can raise awareness and pressure officials to do their jobs correctly.


Even if you don't see results right away, films can play an important role in keeping an issue alive until there is sufficient momentum to achieve a solution. It may take years to achieve success. Even if you succeed in making changes, vigilance is required to make sure that the new policies are correctly carried out.

There is also the campaign side of politics--supporting or opposing votes for candidates, ballot measures, etc.--which I won't focus on here, but on which films can have a significant effect.

Building Relationships

Politics is all about relationships and trust. If you want your film to have an impact in Washington, it's important to partner early with like-minded advocacy groups as well as policymakers and their staff. Including interviews with policymakers themselves can raise the profile of your film, as well as encourage investment in the issue from the policymaker down the road. Lining up the right interviews can be a frustrating process, so what follows are a few pointers.

1) Finding the Right Policymaker--You may want to look beyond the famous or high-profile personalities, whose agendas are already crowded, to find someone more knowledgeable on, or with a personal connection to, your topic. Building a relationship with a policymaker who is actually invested will make a big difference. Newly-elected members may be more open to taking a lead on a breaking issue and to investing time and energy to advocate for change.

2) Develop Relationships with Nonprofit and Advocacy Groups who support the issues in your film. Such groups often have established relationships with members of Congress and can help steer you in the right direction.

3) Be Aware of the Constituents That an Elected Official Represents--It can be counterproductive to ask a politician to publicly advocate for an issue that may go against the best interests of his or her constituents. It is better to identify allies who can freely associate with your message. For this reason, it is important to be honest about your agenda from the start.

4) Work Closely with the Policymaker's Staff to prepare for the interview. Staffers on Capitol Hill can help in many ways beyond basic logistics, such as giving you valuable advice and even potential anecdotes to bring up during your interview.

5) Be Persistent in Your Efforts to Schedule an Interview--Even if a policymaker supports your agenda, there are thousands of other responsibilities to manage. Don't take it personally if the schedule changes at the last minute. Capitol Hill is an unpredictable place where crises are a normal occurrence and schedules are in constant flux.

6) Prepare Some Selling points Beforehand to Make Your Case--Lawmakers always look for good stories to tell that support their policy agendas. Many times, filmmakers can discover and develop powerful stories that traditional news media and policymakers don't have time to find. Lawmakers also want their story to be told, particularly when they are fighting for a cause they believe in. So it is helpful to research their values and priorities and how your film may be able to give voice to these.

7) Establish Truth with Your Interview Subject--While guerilla-style documentaries have their place, in most cases you do not want to blindside or otherwise make your subject feel attacked during the interview. Again, trust is important and you probably don't want to develop a reputation for misleading policymakers. Even if you disagree with a policymaker, it will benefit your film and your chances for future interviews on Capitol Hill if you let them fully explain their position rather than taking their words out of context. Presenting these deep disagreements  honestly will increase public understanding and hopefully encourage progress.

Promoting Solutions

When portraying politics in films and documentaries, as well as in the news media, it's easy to take shortcuts, oversimplify or fall back on old stereotypes. For the sake of your audiences and the democratic process, please take time to understand and to educate. Documentaries actually have a greater chance of doing this well than cable news, with its short segments and real-time analysis. Congress is complicated, but citizens need to grasp how and why policies are the way they are, so they can engage effectively.

While there are many easy targets to attack (i.e., bills are long, the federal government is big, corporations are greedy, etc.), identifying practical answers can be much harder. Try to show workable solutions. If audiences later demand solutions based on faulty evidence or unrealistic proposals, it only makes the process more difficult.

Nothing is ever final in Washington: Bills may pass but not be signed; laws may not be enforced or may be changed. So there is always an opportunity to make a difference if you are prepared.

Will Jenkins has worked in media production, social action and political communications for the last decade. He currently works in the United States Congress. This essay is drawn from a panel presentation at the 2010 AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival. For questions or further information, he can be contacted at 202-228-5258.