Social impact documentary: a driver for change

Several audiovisual professionals discussed social impact documentary during a round table on Wednesday morning at FIFO. Producers and directors described how their films served as tools to bring about change. Miriama Bono, chairwoman of AFIFO, announced that Good Pitch Tahiti will take place at FIFO 2021. We are all invited to watch the action!

At FIFO social impact documentary is the buzzword. This type of documentary is no longer merely telling a story, it now aims to bring about change and be the tool for this change. Certain films leave their mark on viewers, they change ways of thinking, perspectives and abolish prejudices. Others go even further: pervading whole communities, entering schools, becoming teaching materials and amending laws. All films have an impact, but social impact documentary goes hand in hand with information campaigns to effect social change. It is a medium to promote developments in society, educate children and inform entire populations. Documentary is a tool for change.

If socially engaged documentary has always existed, it has ‘turned professional’ according to Nick Batzias. This Australian producer, who produced among other films Sugarland, released in 2014, and The Australian Dream, in competition at FIFO, confirms this ‘sophistication’. Sugarland was immediately conceived as a social impact film. The team harnessed the knowledge of academics and scientists to support their claims and gain proof. ‘People who have been active in this domain for years gave us data.’ A campaign was then set up around the film. Several people worked on it for a whole year. It continues today whilst the film was released in 2014. Sugarland has become a tool for activists, associations and any hands-on people who fight against junk food and in particular high sugar consumption. It was shown in 4,000 schools: ‘By going to see children, you can change the behaviour of adults. ’It led to concrete changes regarding the availability of fizzy drinks and cakes in schools and hospitals. Sugarland changed the behaviour of certain individuals and made people aware of the damage caused by sugar. For Nick Batzias: ‘Film is a driver for change.’

Kumu Hina by Dean Hamer impacted mindsets. His message: ‘Transgender people are part of the history of Hawaii.’ Today, a shorter version of the film is also shown in schools, lessons have been developed around the film to provide pedagogical material for teachers, Kumu Hina is also shown on planes that land in Hawaii. It has even become ‘the most popular resource about the country’s transgender issue’, explains Dean Hamer. With his documentary Eating up Easter, Sergio Mata’u Rapu examines his own lifestyle and questions viewers about their lifestyles. ‘We drink water from bottles and eat rice from Japan. We are part of the problem.’ Telling the story of Rapa Nui today reflects the story of the world: how do you develop on an economic level and protect your environment?

To promote this type of documentary, meetings are specifically organised for project leaders and anyone likely to help them: Good Pitch. Ideas are presented to a panel of contacts: the community, scientists, associations, institutions, the general public, etc. Producing or directing a documentary requires money but not just money. Building a network around project leaders enables them to move faster, further and be stronger. ‘Some people have fantastic ideas and need help to bring them to fruition. Amazing connections can be made on that day and we know that nobody will leave without some support’, says Lisette Marie Flanary, organiser of Good Pitch Hawaii. ‘Many conversations have started on this day and are continuing.’ For Australian producer Nick Batzias it is very important for directors who often work alone to feel this energy. We are all invited to watch the action. Miriama Bono, chairwoman of AFIFO took advantage of this round table to announce that Good Pitch Tahiti will take place at the next FIFO. A call for projects will be launched in April.

Is it a passing trend or a real change in the documentary industry? Everyone agrees on the second proposal. ‘I think that traditional media doesn’t provide us with the narratives that we would like to read. It’s not a trend; it’s a desire to tell these stories’, explains Nick Batzias. For Sergio Mata’u Rapu, ‘it’s the development in the way in which we tell stories, the transition from screen to action. Today we are involved.’ Dean Hamer, the director of Kumu Hina, sees a new industry emerging around social impact documentary. There has been an impact on the audiovisual profession: ‘In the past, there were many competitions, today there is support, connections and sharing. We want the same thing: for our stories to be seen and heard’, concludes Lisette Marie Flanary.

Lucie Rabréaud/ FIFO 2020