Countering the narrative
If committed filmmakers want to reach and influence more people, and counter fake news, impact producing may help get us there.
Many people and entities use the media to further their aims—good, bad, or innocuous. Those with the most money and power tend to have the most access to and influence over the media. As such, there is an urgent need to counter mainstream and interest group-driven narratives. But if we are to reach and influence the general public, we need a vehicle that can drive hard messages into people’s hearts and minds. Enter film-centered social change.
“Impact producing” is a film-centered social change strategy that has been gaining support and attention internationally, and there are a growing number of job opportunities for skilled impact producers and facilitators. It involves devising and implementing strategies that make use of facilitated film screenings supported by other interventions aimed at creating awareness, changing behavior, and influencing policy around issues including human rights, social justice, and climate change.
A majority of the easily accessible, documented impact case studies, resources, and frameworks were created in the Global North and—though they are useful and have benefited many filmmakers and impact producers in the Global South—the time is ripe to document and share examples from and best practices for impact work in the Global South. There are many examples of successful South African impact campaigns designed and helmed by organizations and individuals: some by activists or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), others by impact producers or the filmmakers themselves. But impact takes a village. Metaphorically, for sure, but in Africa and other parts of the Global South, quite often also literally.
One South African NGO, STEPS, has pioneered the work of using mobile cinema to reach under-resourced rural and semi-urban communities with facilitated screenings of films about the human rights and environmental issues affecting those communities. Founded in 2001 by Don Edkins and Ikka Vehkalahti, the organization is currently active in seven African countries. Its team partners with local civil society organizations to provide activists with films, resources, and training on how to use film to affect change. This model relies in large part on the work of individuals who live in or close to the communities where the films are screened. Elaine Maane, the Training Coordinator at STEPS, facilitates their training, coordinates their activities, and provides support on an ongoing basis. She travels around Africa to visit each partner annually (except 2020 and 2021) and fields questions and fosters cooperation via WhatsApp groups on a daily basis.
In South Africa, a lot of impact work has centered around extractive industries, especially how mining activities negatively affect surrounding communities. The film Miners Shot Down (2014), for example, revealed what had happened in August 2012 at Lonmin’s mine in Marikana, in the North West province of South Africa, when 34 striking mine workers were killed. Mainstream media, for the most part, followed the company, government, and police line and reported that police had acted in self-defense. But this independently produced film—directed by activist-filmmaker Rehad Desai—shows in brutal detail how police cornered the men and gunned them down, even as they were running away. The film’s impact campaign included screenings at over fifteen international film festivals, over a dozen television broadcasts worldwide, and over two hundred community screenings that were followed by discussions. The impact campaign was led by Anita Khanna and won a prestigious international impact award for the large, measurable change it made in public awareness about what had really happened in the Marikana massacre.
For impact films, reaching as many people as possible is almost always desirable. It can shift public perception, build active support for an issue, and lead to so much pressure on policymakers or perpetrators that they are forced to respond. Journalist Daneel Knoetze, for example, produced a film—A Killing in the Winelands (2019)—that served as part of a larger, long-term, multi-platform project to expose the lack of investigation and prosecution of crimes committed by South African police officers. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) is the South African body responsible for investigating crimes committed by police officers. But they are not doing their job. Especially not when the victims are from rural areas, informal settlements, and poorer communities. The film was broadcast on current affairs show Checkpoint on eNews Channel Africa (eNCA) and premiered at special screenings in Cape Town and Johannesburg. This coincided with the publication of a series of pieces on the unfolding investigation in a large local newspaper, The Daily Maverick, and the launch of the Viewfinder website, a platform dedicated to “accountability journalism”: reporting that empowers the public with knowledge about abuses of power that can enable them to demand redress and equity.
In a piece on the unfolding investigation published in The Daily Maverick in November 2019, Knoetze reported that “IPID investigators and their managers had taken short-cuts on investigations in a bid to inflate performance statistics. Whistleblower reports suggested that the practice was systemic, widespread across South Africa, and had evolved over many years.” Almost immediately after the release of this multipronged exposé, IPID acting executive director Victor Senna announced that the directorate would publish a report on the revealed inconsistencies. According to Anton Harbor, the convener of the judges for the 2019 Taco Kuiper Award for Investigative Journalism—a South African prize which Daneel was shortlisted for—Daneel’s work “was a multimedia offering, using video to humanize the story, and it had notable impact, in that it has already led to policy changes on how this reporting would happen in future.”
All the platforms used in this project—print publication, television broadcast, and website—worked together to reveal the facts to the public in order to put pressure on the government. But influencing policy wasn’t the only impact goal of this project. The eNCA screening of the film was particularly important for the goal of reaching the general public and informing affected communities and individuals of the importance of and process for reporting police crime. According to audience research commissioned by the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) in 2015, almost 50% of South Africans consumed entertainment predominantly via television broadcast (23.05% through free-to-air and 20.95% through pay TV). Though ripe for review considering how much local and international streaming has grown over the last few years, the NFVF findings are still significant, as Wi-Fi and mobile data are expensive in South Africa and reception is often poor in remote areas. This means that a television screening on a free-to-air broadcaster is particularly useful for a local impact campaign, and a film full of tension, murder, crime, conflict, and authentic emotion has the potential to reach, touch, and influence thousands, even millions of people.
But for certain impact goals, a target audience could be as small as one person: the person with the power to change a policy directly related to the issue. Murder in Paris (2021), for example, tells the story of the assassination in 1988 of Dulcie September, an anti-apartheid activist and the ANC representative to France. #JusticeForDulcie—a hashtag campaign to reopen the investigation into Dulcie’s murder—expresses one of the primary goals of the film’s ongoing impact campaign, which was designed by impact producer Miki Redelinghuys, director Enver Samuel, and Liezel Vermeulen. They partnered with the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) to mount a traveling exhibition dedicated to Dulcie’s life. When French President Emmanuel Macron was on a state visit to South Africa, NMF’s CEO took him on a tour of the exhibition. According to Samuel, “he knew who Dulcie September was. He knew that she had been assassinated there, and he uttered—for us—the immortal words: ‘We will look into it.’ The French lawyers,” he added, “are over the moon by this.”
As with case studies and academic publications, much of the impact training is currently driven by the Global North. Some offerings are free but generic, others are free but competitive and only open to filmmakers with films in production, and yet others are behind paywalls. Filmmakers in the Global South have benefited immensely from best practice models and tools shared by influential organizations like DocSociety through their Impact Field Guide, impact labs, and GoodPitch initiative. GoodPitch Local events, organized and hosted by filmmakers and organizations based in the region being served, have been increasing in popularity. GoodPitch Locals have been hosted in Kenya, Mexico, and Beirut, to name just a few global cities. Yet there is still a gap in resources and training specifically aimed at work for diverse audiences based in a variety of hard-to-reach locations—one that can only be filled by the Global South.
Sunshine Cinema, Africa’s first solar-powered cinema network, was founded in 2017 by filmmakers Sydelle Willow Smith and Rowan Pybus and aims to spark conversation through film while empowering unemployed youth through a comprehensive media training program. Sunshine Cinema and the University of Cape Town (UCT) Centre for Film and Media Studies (where I am a senior lecturer specializing in documentary film studies and film-centered social change strategy) recently co-created the “Film Impact Screening Facilitator” (or “Impact Facilitator”) short course. Now in its second year, this six-month part-time UCT-certified course is offered 100% online but includes weekly synchronous (live) engagements and interaction with peers, mentors, and high-profile—predominantly African—industry guest speakers.
The course was designed with the aim of contributing to the creation and dissemination of knowledge from the Global South and—since applicants don’t have to meet university entry requirements and course fees are subsidized—to break down barriers to university entry. The course focus is squarely on impact facilitators: those who organize, market, and host impact film screenings; are often based in the communities they serve; and facilitate the conversations that are so critical to meaningful and measurable change.
Finding ways to catalyze open, constructive conversations about hard topics like injustice, conflict, trauma, climate change, and even public health has never been more important than now, when misinformation can be spread so quickly and widely via social—and even mainstream—media. The solution to this global problem is obviously not simple or singular. But one antidote is to bring people together in the same space (even if it’s virtual), to look each other in the eyes and talk it out. Seeing the right film at the right time can open audience members to new possibilities. It can make them think, feel, or act differently. It can even mobilize them to take action. Designing and implementing impact campaigns is an art and very hard work. And strategists, facilitators, and trainers in South Africa have been and continue to use film for change. It’s time to share our impact stories with each other—and the rest of the world.