The stories told by these documentaries are meant to incite action, but the same goes for the marketing, social-media, and distribution efforts of their creators.
Films, especially documentaries, with potent social messages seem to be having a greater cultural effect in recent years. That may be in part because of filmmakers' newly ambitious plans for citizen action to spotlight the issues and drive change. Three recent films come to mind as examples of the work of dedicated journalists and producers whose commitment extends beyond the subjects they cover to include far-reaching strategies for distribution and follow-up activities.
The traditional path for such well-intentioned films has been limited theatrical distribution, possibly followed by a run on cable, and then on-demand video and DVDs. As with all films, the makers' goals are accolades from festivals and admiring reviews, a distribution deal that helps to cover costs and provide promotion, and an audience that comes away moved or impressed with the film's purpose.
Now, however, filmmakers with determination to affect people beyond the screen can achieve so much more: Each film has an extensive presence on the Internet, with social media being used to spread the word and share accumulated viewers' experience. The filmmakers' objective is to turn the movie into a catalyst for action. (Perhaps the leading example of this phenomenon is still Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, an Oscar-winner in 2006 that brought climate change to the forefront of public concern and activities.)
I should acknowledge that I am especially aware of these movies and their accompanying campaigns because of connections to each of the filmmakers and producers. So decide for yourselves their ultimate worth and impact. But each one, I'd argue, is a powerful case showing how films can galvanize public awareness of problems and become instrumental in building movements to confront them.
Girl Rising, which premieres this week, is the work of 10X10, a group founded by journalists at The Documentary Group and Vulcan Productions, and with strategic backing from the Intel Corporation (girlrising.com is the place to start for a comprehensive account of all that is happening in the project). The film, directed by Richard Robbins, tells in both a documentary format and narratives the stories of girls from among the world's poorest peoples, whose lives are transformed by enrolling in school. Each girl from Haiti, Peru, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, India, Nepal, and Cambodia is paired with a celebrated writer from their country. Narrators include Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Cate Blanchett. The goal of the film is to show what education could do for the 66 million girls around the world currently denied access to school. The 10X10 organization has brought together a formidable array of partners from a cross-section of NGOs and corporations to drive the social action plan, with funds raised for that purpose. The innovative distribution strategy is a partnership with a service called Gathr Films that will bring the movie to any community that can put together enough of an audience to justify the screening. At last count, 10X10 was well along on the goal of 1,000 screenings after the film's official release. Girl Rising will also be shown on CNN in prime-time in June.
A Place at The Table is a Participant Media film directed by Lori Silverbush and Kristi Jacobson about the enormous number of Americans—49 million people, according to current estimates—considered "food insecure," meaning that their next meal is not assured. It had its theatrical opening on March 1, and is also available on iTunes and on-demand. The notion of such widespread hunger in the world's wealthiest nation is stunning. The film makes the case—both through narration by experts and personal stories—that the scale of the problem is not exaggerated. (PublicAffairs is publisher of a companion book to the film that is a part of the outreach program that Participant Media uses to further its social-advocacy objectives.) The comprehensive website is takepart.com/place-at-the-table.
Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Health Care, by Matthew Heineman and Susan Froemke, has already received significant recognition. It was a selection of the 2012 Sundance Festival and was released to theaters last fall by Roadside Productions. It also was available on-demand, and a DVD with additional features has just been released. On March 10, it will be shown as a CNN documentary feature at 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. EST (escapefiremovie.com is the place to find a complete rundown of how to follow up on the issues in the film). A central part of the innovative advocacy strategy was screenings at scores of medical schools and military installations, where audiences are acutely aware of how serious the problems in America's health-care system continue to be. A summary of the film on its website asserts that "Escape Fire examines the powerful forces maintaining the status quo, a medical industry designed for quick fixes rather than prevention, for profit-driven care rather than patient-driven care. After decades of resistance, a movement to bring innovative high-touch, low-cost methods of prevention and healing into our high-tech costly system is finally gaining ground."
Raising the funds to make these films is a formidable challenge and a long-term undertaking that only a truly determined filmmaker—and the supporters they attract—should even consider. The prospects for a significant commercial return are negligible. But the potential audience for these films is now substantially greater than ever before because of the many ways and places they can be viewed. In addition, they have the developing tools of social media to mobilize an effective, widespread public response for dealing with what were considered seemingly intractable problems. All this, by any measurement, justifies whatever efforts it takes to get them made.