The power of film

'Stories can conquer fear you know. They can make the heart larger'

Ben Okri, Artist

'Politics rise out of culture, and you can change some particular consequences through legislation and opposition but to change the causes is cultural work'

We designed this chapter to give you a chance to reflect on how you got to the point of embarking on a social impact documentary – before we deep dive into planning on your current project.

We'll explore the environments that allow for social change as well as the challenges of marrying art and impact. We'll take you through an exercise to discover more about your own motivations and needs. But first some questions on the particular property of documentary film.

It is a given that films have the capacity to influence people and lead them to new perspectives. That is the power, the experience, of cinema. But what is it about documentary in particular that can cause change?

We found three big reasons sprung out of the literature:

1. Documentary makers rock at storytelling and storytelling inspires change

Unlike shorter forms such as news and social media, long form documentary takes the time to build empathy more deeply, involving audiences directly and immersing them fully in the situation of others, prompting them to engage and act.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has demonstrated the effect of storytelling on the brain's chemistry, increasing levels of cortisol and oxytocin respectively making us more likely to take action.

Want to dig a little deeper into this one?

Here a couple of great free resources - there'll be more to come in the Library as we release more modules, and we'd love to hear your suggestions too.

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading

'Stories are powerful because they transport us into other people's worlds but, in doing that, they change the way our brains work'

Paul Zak, Professor of Economics and founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics

'The discipline called art does not have a monopoly on creative composition. And the domain called politics does not have a monopoly on real existential change. There is no less an aesthetic side to politics than there is a political side to art'

Brian Massumi, Social Theorist & Philosopher

2. Documentaries help create culture, and culture leads change

In working with film, we don't write policy recommendations, we create cultural moments. And that opens the space for change to happen - for more stories to be told and heard, and for people who have the will to seize the moment.

US-based organisation The Culture Group's Making Waves report is a powerful argument for this model of change, drawing evidence from such social issues as marriage equality, civil rights, and the DREAMer movement to show how cultural moments – from the first black player in US major league baseball to Ellen DeGeneres coming out on live television – anticipated and created the opportunity for many of the political and legal changes that followed later.

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading

3. As catalysts from outside, we can bring new energy to and issue

Because filmmakers see the story in an issue in a new way, we can sometimes see what others can't, provide much needed focal points and bring together coalitions and partnerships that never previously existed.

That doesn't give us the right to bulldoze, because the communities we work with will still have to do the hard work themselves. But offered in the right spirit, films can be a great gift.

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading


Made byBRITDOC Foundation Made possible by: Ford Foundation - Just Film Bertha Foundation Sundance Institute Knight Foundation