Creating Technology for Social Change

From Story to Action: Liveblogging the Camden International Film Fest

Liveblog by @schock and @scrumbly1. All errors ours!

It’s day two of the Camden International Film Festival’s Points North Documentary Film Forum, and we’re liveblogging the session “From Story to Action.” From the program:

“Since the days of Grierson, documentary filmmakers have been driven by a desire to affect social change through storytelling. Today’s filmmakers have more tools at their disposal than ever before to engage audiences and close the gap between inspiration and action. In this panel, filmmakers, outreach coordinators and funders discuss ideas and strategies for using film to create meaningful social impact.”

The panelists are: Molly Murphy (Working Films), Anna Lee (Working Films); Sheila Leddy (Fledgling Fund); Christie Marchese (Picture Motion); Banker White (The Genius of Marian); Rebecca Richman Cohen (Code of the West), moderated by Sara Archambault (LEF Foundation).

First, Sean Flynn, director of the Points North Documentary Forum (and new graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies/Writing!) introduces the panel. The panel is linked to a larger initiative at the Festival this year, which is “aging in Maine.” several films in this year’s festival link to this theme, including the Genius of Marian. There’s also a daylong summit with nonprofit leaders from across ME who are working on aging related issues, to talk with filmmakers about how to link films and the energy of screenings with larger impact. It’s the first year the Festival is doing this kind of ongoing campaign; they’ll be taking films to 8-10 communities across Maine. Sean is excited to see how the impact can be extended to the local level. It’s why the panel is called “from story to action:” linking the storytelling to actual campaigns. The panelists all do this work, from different places: funders, filmmakers, impact producers.

Sarah Archambault is program director at LEF Foundation. She introduces Molly Murphy and Anna Lee from Working Films.

Working Films

Molly Murphy: working films is a national nonprofit that links films with advocacy; they’ve been around for 15 years. She shows a Prezi [link?] that walks us through Working Film’s history. Initially, they worked with one film at a time; they developed a summit model that brings filmmakers together with advocates. After many years, they began offering tailored consultations, trainings, residencies, and workshops. With Fledgeling Fund, they launched “reel change,” to develop engagement coordinators. They feel there’s no silver bullet; it takes more than one film on an issue to advance change. They gather groups of documentaries to address key challenges of our times, including reproductive justice, environment, etc. Molly shows a clip from a film about about the economic crisis. It’s a nicely shot and tightly edited trailer for a collection of films about the crisis, foreclosures, job loss. Stories of inequality, homelessness, economic transformation, resilience, communit organizing, and economic justice. The collection of films includes moments from hands that feed us, occupy, madison labor strikes, right to the city, and other organizing moments. More info is at

Anna Lee is the other codirector at Working Films. With Reel Economy, they’re testing state level approach to films. Change is happening at the state level even as the federal government is gridlocked. They’re working with United for a Fair Economy to think about how the films can be used to advance local policy initiatives; Flordia, North Carolina, Colorado.

The Reel Aging initiative is what brought them to Maine. They’re excited for the summit tomorrow that will link agencies and advocates with a group of films that can highlight and advance the conversation about aging in Maine. Next, they show a short clip that’s featured on Reel Aging. “Reel Aging, films for the . The short clip shows the model they use: bringing filmmakers and storytellers together with nonprofits and community organizers. In small groups, people from both sector meet one another and discuss what stories need to be told, framings advanced, and so on. With Reel Engagement, they’re creating opportunities forthe filmmakers, also creating a cadre of nonprofits who are learning about how media can be used to advance work.

Sheila Leddy, Fledgeling Fund (

Fledgeling is a private foundation that provides grants to filmmakers to support the audience engagement phase of the project. When they started, they did some production and postproduction funding, but now they focus on the engagement peice: “once the film is done, how does it have impact in the world?” They look at story as the core, but also think about how to use the film to move people from passive viewers to active participants. They look at how nonprofits are using the work, because they believe the films have to be linked to movements. They’re not a good fit for every doc maker. Some films don’t have a social impact model, and that’s fine; but Fledgeling’s mission is social change; they happen to focus on the story peice. Most projects are long form, but they support shorter pieces as well.

Banker White, filmmaker
Banker is here with his new film, Genius of Marian ( He has worked with both groups. It’s a special festival for them, because they participated in Reel Aging ( when still on production in the film. The film is about his mothers’ struggle with Alzheimer’s. It’s difficult for filmmakers to cold call organizations, so these summits are really important. They met the national groups in DC; pretty much every major partner that they have came out of those meetings. They participated in teh Good Pitch as well []. Good Pitch is pitching your engagement campaign. Banker thinks that state by state work, meeting local groups, this is where all the real planning is going to happen. The communities that host the screenings are key. They have curriculum for professional caregivers and doctors; including clips from the film. The film is very personal; they’re on the process of putting together an interactive platform that lets people make tributes to loved ones, and connects caregivers. They’ve been overwhelmed at people reaching out to them with stories, images, of their experience with Alzheimers and dementia. They’re becoming a platform for people to talk about end of life issues. He shows a clip of this. It’s memory mosaic: an online space for individuals and families to share images and memories. The Memory Mosaic came out of a hackathon in San Francisco. They want to launch it before the film is nationally broadcast, next year. He shows just one video clip from the Memory Mosaic, that’s also part ofthe film. Many people have reached out to them, who have been diagnosed. Some are bloggers. Even before the Memory Mosaic platform existed, he’s seen a real hunger for people to come together around these issues. It’s not something he expected, since the story was so personal for him, based on his and his mothers’ experience. He images they’ll be continuing for some time.

Picture Motion
Christie Marchese introduces Picture Motion ( They are a for profit business, they get hired to create engagement strategy. They try to figure out how to get people to see the film, and how to take action afterwards. They do grassroots screening tours, retirement homes, cchurches. How to use various media platforms, including social media, and so on. Some people just want to get their film out there, others have a specific policy goal.

Rebecca Cohen, filmmaker
Rebecca Cohen made a film about medical marijuana in Montana called Code of the West ( Many western states have legalized Marijuana, although the federal government continues to impose harsh criminal penalties for growers and distributers. They set out to make a film about state level battles, and embedded with mothers who were fighting to repeal the state’s law, as well as a group of growers and patients who wanted to reform the law. Halfway through, there were statewide federal raids. She shows the trailer. The film premiered at SXSW 2012, and had a rocky start. In part, the national drug policy organizations didn’t think the film’s message was useful for the changes they were fighting for at the time. The film’s message was out of step with national policy advocates’ goals, who were trying to get even riskier bills legalizing recreational use passed; but the film showed the harmful impacts of the federal raids on indvidual’s lives. Code of the West was also submitted during the trial of one of the characters in the film, as evidence in his case; he was given probation and didn’t do any time in jail. Another of the characters, Chris, refused a plea, but wasn’t able to effectively present his case in court, and ended up with a mandatory minimum of over 80 years. They were also able to get an Op Doc out one month after Chris’ conviction, when Colorado and Washington legalized. So, it was able to move forward the conversation about mandatory minimums, and national organizations came on board. They were trying to support Tom and Chris’ cases; they partnered with ACLU, organized screenings in 20 communities, public lbraries, free events. ACLU and their partners were able to use these screenings as public forums to correct misinformation that opponents had been spreading. It became a space for conversation and information circulation. The criminal cases were sticky: there was concern that the film could backfire, since the US Attorney General might not want to be seen buckling to public pressure. Chris’ sentence was converted to a 5 year sentence.


Sara kicks off the discussion by asking Rebecca how she determined her goals for change.

Rebecca: I’m trained as a lawyer. Our goals changed a lot. Sometimes, they didn’t align with the national conversation. I thought we should have talked about federal drug laws earlier; it was frustrating that our partners didn’t want to do that. It was a question of timing and waiting for those goals to align. I didn’t set out to change the world; I set out to tell the story of what was going on in Montana. A film that acknowledges the messiness of the world and the poor outcomes of state regulation wasn’t the perfect film for activists. Maybe it’s not the best case study.

Sara: I think it’s excellent. How do you encourage filmmakers to work with NGOs about crafting message together, in some cases the filmmaker has a separate goal.

Molly: Sometimes it’s about which partner. For example there may be groups working at the State level. It’s important to align your goals from the beginning of the partnership. Experts can be useful, if they do align, and aren’t in complete contradiction to what you’re trying to achieve. But if you’re not aligned, you’re not.

Anna: Definitely. If we haave 10 films all on this issue, not every one will be in alignment with the issue organizations. Whether we’re working on environmental issues, health, we pull out the films that are most linked to the organizational work. In North Carolina, we’re using Citizen Coke, about money in politics.

Christie: you want to work with the right partners, but you have to look for the right timing as well. For example, when ACA was being voted on, everyone was covering it, but by the time a film we were working with came out, it wasn’t hot. We worked on Fruitvale, and it was timed just right with teh Trayvon Martin trial. You can’t necessarily plan that. Many organizations were excited to seize the opportunity. Sometimes that works, sometimes you just get screwed.

Sheila: you won’t always have the perfect moment. If you look at Escape Fire, it might not have the right moment, but they’ve done amazing work, it’s still screening; they’ve screened for 1000 military leaders at the VA. These will be people deciding how to deploy pharmaceuticals in the military. So, who will be the people best positioned to make the change you need? Timing is key for the initial push, but you can also build in oppotunities if you think about who your changemakers are.

Sara: my next question is, what’s the timeline for an engagement campaign like this? And what is the support that the filmmaker needs? You’re giving the filmmaker a lot of jobs. Some filmmakers are natural activists, and others are storytellers. For example Banker, you were saying you wish you had an outreach producer earlier.

Banker: yes, now we do have someone working with us full time and another consulting. This is relationship building. Everyone needs 4, 6, 8 months to really fit into their programs. Most partners who are excited about working with us can’t fund us. My brother put together a seminar; there was interest at Colombia to make it part of the curriculum at the school of public health. There’s lots of support and interest, but no funding. It’s a great opportunity w/Colombia, Alzheimer’s Association. I know we’ll find funding, but everything is a year after when we thought it would be. My brothers’ a doctor, my sister’s an educator, my mom was a social worker. I made a film about the civil war in Sierra Leone and I didn’t think our outreach work there would last a year; 6 years later I help run a media center in Sierra Leone. It takes years to make a film, you meet a lot of people along the way, it’s about team building.

Sara: How do you know afterward that you did make a change? How do you measure change?

Sheila: When you’re looking at social change, you’re looking at a long term process. You want to be able to say ‘we passed this law,’ or ‘we changed everyone’s mind.’ But in reality it’s a long process. Escape Fire, for example, did they fix our health care system? No, but can we capture interim measures: did we get the film in front of the right people at the right time? Some may be numbers, some may be anecdotes or stories. You have to create a picture of the impact. Who is using the film? The fact that the VA is using the film, and have signed up to do additional screenings and teaching, that’s impact. If you can begin to raise awareness for a complex topic, that’s key. The general public doesn’t necessarily know what’s up. What’s your theory of change?

Sara: A balance between the measureable and anecdotal is important. Christie, you have that with God Loves Uganda.

Christie: Yeah, God Loves Uganda ( follows American evangelicals to Uganda and it’s having a negative impact on LGBTQ folks there, it’s inspired the ‘kill the gays’ bill. So the film is being used to create dialogue between LGBT activists and Church groups in 5 countries in Africa. This is just one story, but it’s a spark. We hope we can support organizations to keep doing that.

Sheila: it gives context to the numbers. if you have 20 screenings in Africa, OK, but it gives context to what happened.

Next they show a clip from this screening and conversation. This clip just arrived, it’s a good movie marketing clip: this is one audiences’ reaction, what will yours be? The clip is called “Out in Malawi” [It’s on rogerosawilliams (?)]

Rebecca: regarding what filmmakers need to do this well: outreach campaigns aren’t only time intensive, they require funding. I had a full time outreach coordinator; we hired someone at ACLU. There are also ways to do it that are less resource intensive. My first film was also about Sierra Leone; we focused on what Sheila said: if you can’t be organizing community screenings across the country, what do you do? Get the film into organizers’ hands, get it into that hands of people in power. The FBI, CIA, and State Department screened our film in a training. It was just getting the film to one person in the organization who thought it was useful.

Sheila: It does take resources. Sometimes you have to look at unusual suspects. And you have to figure out who is interested in funding this part of the work.

Sara: some filmmakers do like to maintain there objectivity in the film. How do you remain objective as a storyteller, but activist in your outreach.

Rebecca: I wouldn’t use the word objective. You can be truthful and balanced, but all stories are told from a place. You can be an activist but also be balanced.

Sara: I’m thinking of the funding arena. For some, you best present the issue in a way that the audience can decide for themselves.

Rebecca: Film funders will look at you and if it seems you’re biased, it limits where you can broadcast the film. But that’s not the case for engagement funders.

Then the panel has a back and forth about perspective, perceptions of bias, the tensions with engagement.

After that, there’s a conversation about the role of movement media makers and the links to long form documentary.

Rebecca brings up “how to survive a plague,” which is largely made from archival footage from the AIDS movement.

Sasha asks about linking participatory media making, or self-documentation by movements, with long form documentary film. This can be a powerful outreach strategy as well, if people’s clips and material are included in the documentary, there’s a built in audience and outreach network.

Christie: if you’re bringing an organization into your film, you have to have very honest conversations and written MOUs. For example if an org gets cut from the film, they’re on the editing room floor, but they’ve been building a campaign around it. That’s not a good place to be in.

Everyone agrees that an MOU is important, and it’s also important to keep updating all the organizations that were involved up to date with the film’s progress.

Banker had a group approach him, who are workign on digital divide issues in India. They wanted to hire him. He convinced them that they don’t need to make a film: they had a long talk about gatekeepers and groups that produce media. Not everything has to have a feature length documentary. Sometime the effort and energy required for a feature length film is not the best way to have an impact.

Question from the audience: Shares an experience of a group that came with a lot of footage; they went back and forth to figure out that it was important for a good story to be told that was solution oreinted, rather than a collection of talking heads. There are a lot of situations where someone who has done a lot of shooting and a point they want to make comes to try and work with a filmmaker.

Q: I was in development with WGBH and PBS for 15 years, they would say ‘get me a million dollars by Friday!’ I’m curious how you all collaborate with one another, also how social media, or Kickstarter, works for you.

Sara: LEF foundation exclusively works with New England filmmakers; we do all work together and there are times we collaborate and are in direct dialogue. Fondations have their own missions.

Sheila: We funded some of the early work in Working Films, we love the idea of filmmakers and movement groups working together. You can’t force it, but groups may be willing to work together. The idea is to create a space where people can work together in collectives. You may be creating a foundation for people to work together.

Molly: Much of our funding has been from foundations to use media for change. Funding came from GFEM. Now as we’re doing issue organizing, we’re diversifying and going to issue funders. Culture/Arts funding is also great in some cases.

Banker: We used Kickstarter successfully in production; I’m going to run another campaign in outreaach. I’m trying to time it so that we are able to make something happen before broadcast. Our campaign has a bunch of different targets. When you say you’re an advocacy film, some of the medical funders said that wouldn’t work. My brother is publishing some of the research he did last year; the interactive peice is more new media / arts funding. That’s the part we’ll target for Kickstarter. You don’t just get money, you get a whole network of support.

Then there’s an off the record discussion about how difficult Kickstarter actually is 😉

Q: Is anyone making a model of how to do this?

Anna: Fledgeling has a great website with resources about how to do this kind of work!

Molly: We want to make it easy to replicate our Reel Engagement process. We want to put it out there for other people to use it too!

Rebecca: Witness has a great resource called Video for Change that’s very helpful.

Christie: social media is important, but don’t forget about email. Use a pop up on your site to get people’s email address! Social media’s a tool, it doesn’t mean action is taking place. Social media is a conversation tool, to really listen and hear from people. But 1 million FB friends doesn’t necessarily mean something has changed.

Sara: How do you work with the NGOs in terms of access to the film, speaking fees, and so on?

Everyone agrees that it varies. Also, that it’s important to develop a written MOU. This helps avoid sticky situations down the line. Everyone’s underresourced, so it’s also great to think about ways to co-fundraise.

Thanks all!