How change happens

How change happens is 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 that 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 both within and beyond film projects. This section looks at the theoretical extremes of each side (the Top Downers and the Bottom Uppers), pulling apart the two in order to make clear what each has to offer, then bringing them 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. It’s a school of thought which says that, since the formal structures of society dictate how society works, then the goal of change campaigns needs to be focused around changing those structures. Often this means targeting lawmaking and political decision makers at local, national or intergovernmental levels, as well as attempting to influence the CEOs, 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 addressed, and the machine reprogrammed to make it work better. Widespread public awareness of the issue can be a part of the work but, fundamentally, the structural change is what matters.

Some documentary films using such top down change strategies have achieved great things on individual issues. After the release of Blackfish, for example, SeaWorld took a major hit in terms of attendance, reputation & market value but also triggered new legislative protections. 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.

However, if not handled carefully, a top down approach can manifest itself in impacts that are patronising and even disempowering. The caricature of an outsider parachuting in to make a film about the plight of a disadvantaged community, screening it in the seat of government to mass applause 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?

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

Bottom up change

Bottom up thinking, by contrast, sees society as more of an organic system in which all issues are interlinked and 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, rights enshrined in law have come a very long way and continue to head broadly in the right direction, yet the practical reality in the lives of real people lags far behind, with the direction of travel perhaps even heading in the wrong direction.

'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

Instead of seeking to change structures at policy level, 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, building power at that level. 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.

'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.

When Just Vision released Budrus, nonviolent resistance in the Palestinian territories was either invisible or seen as ineffectual. So, they worked closely with activists in the village of Budrus to tell their story in a way that could be used to inspire activists in Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. to recognise and support nonviolent approaches. As filmmaker Julia Bacha put it: “We’re operating at the level of changing social norms and behaviours.” The villagers used screening events to train and foster new relationships with organisers in other villages, and to inspire more women to get involved in the resistance. In so doing, Budrus was able to legitimise, strengthen and grow the nonviolent resistance movement.

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.

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 its 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 closely 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.

Similarly, the film 9.70 was a bottom up campaign that nonetheless also focused on policy change. The film was developed in response to a brewing movement of farmworkers in Colombia who were protesting new trade agreement rules that impeded their ability to store seed from their own harvest as they had done for generations. The film’s impact campaign focused on raising awareness about the new ruling, which was undermining food sovereignty across the country. The filmmakers armed farmworkers with 9.70 and worked with them to raise the visibility of their concerns to broader audiences and to grow their movement. Soon, protesters across the country were using the film as a convening tool and, almost overnight, activists started sharing the YouTube link as a way of communicating why the farmers were protesting.

But, ultimately, the filmmakers’ goals were to repeal resolution 9.70. This meant also engaging policymakers and targeting the mainstream media. So, they appealed to farmers who were negotiating with the government to get the law onto the negotiating table. When their voices were blacked out by the mainstream media, they used the YouTube platform, where they had built a solid audience base, to correct misinformation and provide their followers with the tools they needed to defend them and keep the debate alive until, ultimately, mainstream outlets were forced to give them meaningful airtime. And finally, 20 days after releasing their film, the government was forced to repeal Resolution 9.70.

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 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 believe these two case studies hint at the bigger truth here – that there are many different ways of working for change. Which is appropriate to a particular 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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