I had the pleasure of being invited to the BritDoc Puma Impact Awards, courtesy of (fellowship interviewee) Sandi DuBowski, and it provided an interesting moment to consider larger topics of impact, outreach, self-distribution, grassroots tactics, and community engagement. Early in our fellowship, we bemoaned how many films that have social action campaigns are frequently not using metrics, which is a key element of an effectively run grassroots political campaign. In other words, with a few exceptions, though they have goals for change and take actions that are larger than the life of the film itself, they don't record their progress towards those goals. The special thing about the Impact Awards is that they take the measuring of a film's impact very very seriously. Though it may be oriented around a single award, that award provides an opportunity for filmmakers to reflect on what they have really accomplished with their film, beyond box office, in real numbers. Easy to read but very comprehensive Impact Reports with these goals and numbers are prepared, which you can see for the five nominees here. I'd never seen anything like this and I was duly impressed.
However it was a reminder that while it is a foregone conclusion at this point to use "issue" films (especially in documentary films) as political tools for change, there is a fundamental resistance to switch up the equation such that grassroots action is used as tools to get a film out there in the world. What do I mean? It sense to use "The Interrupters," for example, to organize church groups and community centers around stopping violence. However, the idea of organizing the same groups and areas to watch a film and further distribute is perceived as... tacky? Looking at these reports, the amount of action and organizing is immensely impressive. But they are on behalf of films that, for the most part, have significant institutional support and some kind of distribution machine. Thus the movements toward change that happen as a result of them almost seem like an add-on -- something complementary to the life of the film. Of course a film that makes an impact in the box office can make a further impact as far as change, which in turn makes an impact on the box office, etc. etc. such that it snowballs indistinguishably.
However, institutional support and a distribution machine behind you does not describe the vast majority of independent filmmakers out there -- perhaps especially some working in the social issue documentary space. The challenge for these filmmakers is to look at what tactics the ones who have the privilege to be able to do complementary social change with their film, and use them for a different goal. If I am a struggling filmmaker, with no distribution, and no goal for my film beyond getting it further out to the public, it should not be uncalled for for me to approach the same community groups that did their own self-generated, more change-based outreach for films like "Bully" or "The Invisible War" with my film, so long as I think there could be an interest in it. I guess what I'm calling for is a disentangling of "grassroots" tactics with "change-making" goals. Films like those at the Impact Award use the former for the latter, but that is a privilege. Most films can't afford to do anything but use the former for mere survival. And that's okay. Just one example: these "United Skates" filmmakers organizing skate parties to fundraise for their film. The same tactics as these more successful or well-known or supported films, but for survival as a film, instead of to move the social change barometer.
Also, if we cannot ignore that screening a "social issue" film in and of itself does make an impact, and expand the life of the film, and for a struggling filmmaker that should be enough. Ironically, the campaign for "The Act of Killing," which ended up winning the award, was oriented most centrally about the film itself being screened, because it was so controversial in its home country. The political action was to screen the film, because it moved against resistance. This is akin to how Sandi DuBowski measured the impact of his "Trembling Before G-d"; he recorded every institution where he was able to screen the film as a move towards change. However, the "Act of Killing" report almost apologizes for pushing the film's viewing being central to the campaign: "Not usually considered a measure of impact in and of itself, the political circumstances of Indonesia lend special relevance to the Indonesian screenings the team has managed to facilitate and support." Double ironically, though, many of the specifics of this deal to get Indonesian audiences to see the film were brokered by William Morris Endeavor and Vice. Even in the most political space, when it comes to expanding a film's release, it seems like traditional New York & Hollywood media entities still wield considerable barrier-busting power.
Similarly, "Bully" got the most publicity and exposure (which in turn must have added to its impact and social action success) from something that has specifically to do with its status as a film (not a political tool): the MPAA awarded it an R rating. Again, this provided something to resist against, injecting the film, its political life, and its grassroots infrastructure with a momentum. And it helped that the Weinstein Company was there to capitalize on this apparent "outrage," to stoke the fire.
The most interesting case may be "The Interrupters," which was produced by Steve James' Kartemquin Films, which is a non-profit committed to creating films of social change. This is an explicit combination of film with social change, not one added on to the other; the goals are not two but one.