How change happens

How change happens a huge topic and the subject of lively ongoing debate. Our aim in this chapter is to share core theories so we can think about it in relation to our films and the impact campaigns we are planning. For us, the big question that comes up over and over again can be summarised in five words:

'Slavery wasn't a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn't a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn't a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn't a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one'

Top down or bottom up?

This refers to a critical division in the theories of change that different projects, campaigns and people have chosen in seeking to achieve change in the world, both within and beyond film projects. This section looks at the theoretical extremes of each side (the Top Downers and the Bottom Uppers), pulling the two apart to make clear what each has to offer; then bringing the two together with two key film case studies to ask whether this division is really so pronounced.

Top down change

Top down approaches have arguably dominated thinking about how change happens until relatively recently. A school of thought which says since the formal structures of society dictate how society works, then the goal of change campaigns needs to be focused around changing those structures. Targeting lawmaking and political decision makers at the local, national or intergovernmental level as well as attempting to influence the CEO's, boards and stakeholders of national and multinational corporations.

The worldview from which top down working makes most sense is one which sees society as a machine which broadly works but requires fixing. Individual problems can be analysed and understood in terms of linear cause-and-effect, and the machine reprogrammed to make it work better.

Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day

Frances Hesselbein, The Key to Cultural Transformation, Leader to Leader

This is not to say that widespread public awareness of the issue is not part of the work. These projects want to mobilise public pressure in support of the structural changes they seek – so they might try to mobilise ‘bottom up' action, like petition signing for example – but fundamentally, the structural change is what matters to them.

Arguably, films using such top down approaches have achieved great things on individual issues. No Fire Zone is credited with playing a key role in the United Nations decision to set up an international inquiry into Sri Lankan war crimes. Two years after the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld reported an 84% decline in profits. But at worst, such approaches can manifest in ways that are patronising and even disempowering.

Increasingly, the caricature model of an outsider coming in to make a film about the plight of a disadvantaged community, screening it to mass applause in the seat of government, and then striding off into the sunset weighed down with plaudits is coming under question from the perspective of the communities themselves – even if some substantive policy or legal change does result.

What emerges in opposition to this approach is bottom up change. So what does that look like?

Bottom up change

Bottom up approaches to change are not new but they are – to some extent by their nature – less high profile. The school of thought behind such approaches tends to see the social context very differently.

'If there is any hope for the world at all, it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the people who go to battle everyday to protect their forests, their mountains and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and the rivers protect them'

Arundhati Roy, Writer & Activist

Bottom up thinking by contrast sees society more as an organic system, in which all issues are interlinked and which fundamentally cannot be divided up. You might change one aspect of a system but at the end of the day the system is resilient, and absorbs this change without fundamental shift. This analysis might for example be applied to the question of racial equality in the United States: arguably legal rights enshrined in law have come a very long way and continue to head broadly in the right direction but the practical reality in the lives of real people lags far behind, and the direction of travel may even be heading in the wrong direction.

'Far too many progressives still focus on speaking to a consensus-seeking policy elite – one that privileges objectivity, data, and argument – instead of pushing their ideas out to a divided public that responds to values, images, and stories'

Jeff Chang, Journalist & Author

Instead of seeking to change structures at the elite level of policy, the fullest version of bottom up change seeks instead to work at the level of relationships between the very people and communities most affected by the issue in question. The cause-and-effect pathway to real change is less clearly articulated but the fundamental belief is that without these communities becoming stronger and understanding themselves better in their own right, no real change will ever be possible.

In the context of bottom up working, the act of making a film (or other media) is often as important as who sees the film once made. Repeated studies have found that participating in the making of a media project is itself a powerful way for communities and their members to reflect on their own stories, and identify their own power and desire for change. From a bottom up perspective, this empowerment may well be far more important than any abstract change in a law which can seem so distant as to be irrelevant.

Opposing or complementary?

In some ways, then, there is a major divide between these two headline approaches to the question of how change happens in the world. But when the rubber hits the road, is there really a conflict between them? The short answer is that we don't think so.

That's not to say that this isn't an important distinction to be aware of – it is hugely important, and the work you do with your film is likely to be far more effective if you are. But the best examples we can think of, while coming more from one side than the other (as we'll explore later in the module, in the context of the four key Impact Dynamics of film that we've identified), actually bring these two approaches together.

Bottom up to top down

'One leads best by stepping back. Communities drive their own development; catalysts facilitate the process. The purpose of a catalyst is to stimulate change'

Terry Bergdall, Professional Facilitator

The film American Promise and the engagement campaigns explored racial equality with a theory of change primarily rooted in bottom up working. The filmmakers were the parents of one of the two subjects of the film and have since become significant figures in the ongoing debate around the issue of black male achievement and a locus of grassroots organising. The primary focus of the campaign around the film was partner screenings, working deeply with partner organisations across the United States to raise the volume of debate, but more importantly to build the capacity, profile and community of the partner organisations.

But to depict American Promise purely as a bottom up project would clearly be false. The film also screened on Capitol Hill, and sought directly to influence the policy environment for black male achievement. The approach was to focus primarily on building the community from within as the single most important intervention in the complex system of factors inhibiting black male achievement – but with a clear understanding that the structural context of society is another valid place for intervention, and an important one at that.

Top down to bottom up

Similarly, at first glance The Invisible War is a classic example of a top down approach to change. The team focused ruthlessly on getting key individuals, holding key positions of power over military and government policy, to see the film – often with direct personal contact. Raising public awareness was a major part of the campaign, but framed entirely as instrumental to the desired political and legal changes.

But just as American Promise used top down approaches, the campaign around The Invisible War has vital bottom up elements. The film has become a key convening tool in the formation of a national community of survivors, the Artemis Rising Invisible War Recovery Program, and over $1m has been raised to support the development of programmes supporting and empowering this community to tell their own stories. Legal and political changes have been achieved, but it is this work that will develop the community that ensures that change will continue to push forward.

"When you look at potential shifts like the desperate need to democratise the world''s governments, the work takes much, much longer. Great perseverance is needed. So the culture of thinking that good environmental or social intervention can happen in short cycles and the current obsession with wanting organisations to prove they are having an immediate impact, is misleading"

Kumi Naidoo, International Executive Director, Greenpeace

Our conclusion

We think these two case studies hint at the big truth here – that there are many different ways of working for change, and which are appropriate to a film project is less a question of right and wrong, and more a question of which and when. The important thing is to be aware of these issues; and to approach all this work with both humility and commitment.

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading


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