Impact in Action

Short-form films are no different from feature-length documentaries when it comes to planning for impact. But it’s often the case that because shorts circulate well online, the impact dynamic that teams will focus on is ‘changing minds’ (e.g. awareness and reach). But each film has the potential for a different kind of impact, depending on the story, its strengths and the issue landscape it will fall within. Water Warriors, for example, and The Quipu Project, which was about the forced sterilisations of primarily people of indigenous descent in Peru in the 1990s, were both used to build community (among other things). Occupy Bakery was used as a leadership development tool. The A Conversation on Race series was a valuable educational tool for the communities covered in each piece.

Your team will still need to navigate most of the same questions and factors as a feature-length film, so circle back to chapters 1, 2, and 3 for a refresher. Here’s a quick summary of the key questions you’ll need to consider for your short film:

1) What is your team’s number one priority? This is the most important question to tackle before you get started with your planning because what you focus on hereafter will depend on your answer. For example:

  • We need to recoup our costs.
  • We want this film to have an impact.
  • We hope to build momentum towards a feature-length or a series.

Orient your strategic planning around this priority. More guidance on this follows in the section below. But you can return to the prioritisation list in the first chapter to jog your thinking.

2) What’s the Story Environment that you’re dealing with and how can your film help?
  • Is it a FRESH issue about which your film can help REVEAL important information?
  • Is it a FAMILIAR issue that your film can help put the SPOTLIGHT on?
  • Is it a HIDDEN issue that your film INVESTIGATES and exposes for the first time?
  • Is it an ENTRENCHED issue that will benefit from a film that can HUMANISE it? 

As we discussed earlier in the guide - get clear on what’s needed and where your film fits in, and build your impact plan around that.

3) Who are the key players or sectors working to solve the problems your film addresses?

Once you’ve thought about the story environment and what role your film can play to help move the meter on the issue, it’s time to think about who you need to partner with to help you. If you haven’t already, do some research to find the stakeholders who work on the issues, or with the audiences you need to reach or engage. Find out if they can use your film to advance their efforts.

4) What is the core Impact Dynamic of your campaign going to be?

  • Changing minds
  • Changing behaviors
  • Changing structures
  • Building Communities

Build your strategic plan around that. For example: if your goal is to use the film to change people’s behaviors, will it be clear to them what they need to do after they’re done watching? Will they need help figuring that out? If so, how will they get the help they need? If your goal is to change policy, how will you get the attention of the decision-makers who can help with that?

When we look at campaigns around shorts that helped affect meaningful change, we notice a few common characteristics. Of course, not every short film that’s had an impact has held each. But the markers of success we’ve seen relate to how targeted they are; the partners they work with; the way they work with the communities they cover; the use of event-based engagement; and how they work with other media. We explore each below and offer a few examples to illustrate.

Films which have a target

Film teams that either know exactly what they want to do with a film, or what impact they hope to have, will have a better chance of accomplishing it because they can mobilise their resources towards those ends. Let’s return back to two feature docs that have created materials fit for purpose for their target audiences.

Thank You For the Rain by Julia Dahr and Kisilu Musya which was released as both a short and feature, was used by Emily Wanja and her impact team in Kenya to spread climate change awareness and advocacy, trigger discussions about sustainable farming and build community-driven solutions for agricultural resilience. In their outreach, they focused on hard to reach rural communities and created opportunities for community members to discuss directly with their leaders the loopholes in the existing programmes and climate change adaptation efforts in their regions. These discussions led to agreements on solutions in some communities (such as returning to drought resistant crops), the need for irrigation systems, water harvesting dams, economic empowerment solutions in times of drought, and more community-policymaker involvement in decision making. In fact, they are now working with a variety of stakeholders to construct a water harvesting earth dam that will serve over 200 households in Mutomo, an area greatly affected by climate change. 

The feature and the short have turned out to be a powerful convening tool. The team is organising the first Communities Climate Resilience Convention (CCRC), held in conjunction with partner organisations, national and county governments, with Thank You for the Rain as the centerpiece. Local organisations are using it in their ongoing climate change work to support advocacy and awareness. Fifty new farmers’ groups have started working with the film’s protagonist, Kisilu, on climate adaptation activities and have planted thousands of trees, alongside impact screenings in schools and select counties. Educator lesson plans for secondary schools are being developed for use by teachers in several subjects. And finally, the film has helped to raise Kisilu’s and his community’s profile by elevating his message, even as far as the UN Climate Conference in Bonn.

American Promise is another film created with a mission in mind: to engage parents and teachers in a broad effort to close the educational achievement gap for young black men. The campaign was multipronged, offering targeted resources for different audiences. For example, they created an app and a book to help parents better support their kids. They promoted Promise Clubs, to model and push for regular parents meetings to discuss challenges and solutions together. They created a resource for educators to help improve the classroom experience for students. The film team soon realised it would be beneficial to also have a short piece that appealed more directly to young people. So, they created Behind Every Promise, which aired on POV, and used it to foster youth-led dialogues and workshops on campuses and in conference, where they could give voice to their experiences and build power together. 

Five years after the film’s release and the filmmakers note that Promise Clubs continue to meet informally and strategically to address the specific needs of the schools their children attend. In addition to this sustained impact, the added benefit to the Rada Film Group has been that, by creating a package that featured various versions and modules for targeted audiences, they were able to make a more attractive package for the educational market that had both greater longevity (it’s still being used today) and generated greater returns (it’s still being purchased by educational institutions today).

Projects with strong partnerships.

Partnerships are often one of the most valuable ways to leverage a short’s strengths towards strategic ends. As with feature length films, they also tend to be a strong way to get a film out there, especially among target audiences. But the sometimes quicker turnaround time of short-form films can imply quicker decision-making and perhaps less time to build relationships and trust with important stakeholders. However, these relationships are often just as important in short-form film as they are in long-form.

'As with long form documentary, relationships and partnerships are critical to the impact work. When thinking about impact for a short film, a filmmaker may have to be a bit more intentional about building these relationships earlier in the process. With a long-form documentary, intimate relationships and trust often form over a long period of time between the subjects and filmmakers, and with community and national organisations. A short-form project may not have this benefit, since their timelines do not always lend themselves to it. But these relationships can make or break a project.'

Sheila Leddy, Fledgling Fund and the Rapid Story Deployment Fund

Similarly, fIlmmakers Ilse and Femke van Velzen of IFProductions in the Netherlands created a series of 16 shorts based on a trilogy of films they had made related to sexual violence in the Congo: FIGHTING THE SILENCE Torn by the War of Democratic Republic of Congo; JUSTICE FOR SALE; and WEAPON OF WAR Confessions of Rape in Congo. Their teams start every film project with a community-based workshop, which they call an “inception”, to ensure local partners and stakeholders have a say in the development of their productions. The filmmakers crafted the impact campaign, raised the money and coordinated the set-up of the project. Finally, the local partner Search for Common Ground (SCG), a long-standing international organisation focused on cooperative solutions to end conflict, was the organisation the would implement the campaign on the ground. SCG was important because they are trusted, have a strong network, and managed well in the Congo; they made it possible to get the series of shorts out to communities and the military during a time of war. SCG was also the only partner in the Congo that had the experience of traveling and organising community plays, which made them the best partner.

Welcome to Shelbyville by Kim Snyder is a film about a small town in Tennessee that is experiencing rapid demographic change. At a fine cut screening for funders, several wanted to know more about one of the film’s central characters - Hawo, a Somali refugee and former nurse. This made sense: there were very few films at the time that enabled refugees from Muslim-majority countries to speak for themselves. So, in addition to deploying the full length film, the impact and engagement team at Active Voice created a 31-minute version called Hawo’s Dinner Party, to give audiences an opportunity to go deeper into her story.

The team launched the short film on the 10th Anniversary of the fall of the Twin Towers in NYC, and it quickly took on a life of its own. They equipped local and national leaders - from those working in local public libraries to those leading national networks like the International Rescue Committee, Welcoming America, and the YMCA - with a tool to break down stereotypes and build bridges between long-term residents and Muslim newcomers, locally and nationally. The Boise Police Department, for example, held a dialogue between police and Muslim residents; Puentes New Orleans used it to build bridges between the local Muslim and Latinx communities; and the Greeley Public Library in Colorado used the story to create space for youth newcomers to share their own stories with local residents. By the campaign’s end, the film had been used in hundreds of screenings in 30 states, including seven cities with large Somali populations and at least seven cities that were grappling with heightened hostilities between Muslim newcomers and the receiving community.

Sometimes, a film’s creation is intimately tied to the work of an organisation. For example, the Laundry Workers Center (LWC), which is featured in Occupy Bakery, found great value in the film as an organising tool for their work. Because it took years to make the film - time that the organisers featured in the film didn’t have - the short became a core resource to inspire workers, show them what’s possible, and continue building the movement they needed through the Center. In fact, use of the short (and even the trailer!) helped LWC inspire workers in several restaurants to launch labour campaigns and wage theft lawsuits, which were ultimately successful.

Be sure to return to section 3.9 for a refresher on strategic partnerships.

Film teams who collaborate with the communities they support

Quipu: Calls for Justice, the short film directed by Maria Ignacia Court & Rosemarie Lerner and produced by Sandra Tabares-Duque and the co-directors about the forcible sterilisation of indigenous women in Peru in the 1990s, premiered on the Guardian in 2017. “The groups of people we worked with told us: We’ve been trying to tell this story and nobody has heard us,” said Sandra. So the project became a way to address that challenge. The documentary short is a part of The Quipu Project, which - as with the previous examples - is transmedia.  It is comprised of a phone line that helps women across Peru who were forcibly sterilised by the government to share their stories with one another and with the rest of the world, an interactive website that presents viewers with these stories, and a campaign to pressure the government of Peru to recognise and allow the voices of these women to be heard.

One of the things that made The Quipu Project’s design so effective is that it used a technology - analogue mobile phones - that was familiar to the indigenous women they intended to engage. Due to lack of access, illiteracy, and other communications challenges, some of the groups that were fighting for justice didn’t realise that women in other communities had also been forcibly sterilised. So, the phone line became a way to connect these women to one another and help them build power together. The phone line was set up with options in both Spanish and Quechua, and the creative team made sure a consent protocol was built into the process. “We didn’t want to create a project about them, but with them,” said the team. The project helped successfully mobilise women in actions that culminated in a march during the time leading up to the presidential elections in 2016. Today, these women are organised into a national organisation that supports and elevates their voices, and they use the media to continue to organise, mobilise for their rights, and build new leaders.

Another example is She Called Me Red, a short series that presents a Rohingya-led perspective on  their mass exodus to Bangladesh following extreme violence in August 2017. It does so through the perspective of 27-year-old Yunus and his family. It was produced by SBS, the Australian public broadcaster which has a charter to provide content for all Australians including underrepresented communities. Recognising that the Rohingya people had been fleeing persecution in Myanmar, SBS green-lit development on the project utilising the technologies that have been crucial to the Rohingya and other recent waves of refugees: smartphones. They found that these are among the most precious possessions of people fleeing for their lives. Refugees use IM and social media to maintain fragile connections with the family members they've been separated from.

Kylie Boltin, commissioning editor for Online Documentaries at SBS, conceived of the series, which became the world’s first live Instagram documentary and serialised over three weeks with daily content from both the Thangklai Rohingya refugee camp and Melbourne Australia. The project captures posts from Bangladesh, the challenges Yunus faces to gain asylum in Australia, the difficulties in finding work, the experiences of being a new diaspora community, and all the requirements of fulfilling and maintaining his status there. Daily live video ‘stories’ from the camp are coupled with daily posts: photography, text and animation that add context about the experiences captured.

'We released the content daily. Our intent was engagement and intimacy, not necessarily courting a viral hit. The project’s audience heard Yunus’s story over time, they learned he was the only member of his family to have reached Australia and continues to assist his family living in Thangkali Refugee Camp, Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The audience heard first-hand what it meant to have family living day-to-day in the Rohingya refugee camp – their daily struggles and sacrifices. Our audience was compassionate and thoughtful and there was a clear investment in Yunus and his family. We saw spikes of engagement when Yunus shared his personal struggles – with his family’s sickness, his search for a job; when he found a job. They empathised with him while he looked for a job and celebrated with him when he eventually found one. The combination of serialised storytelling and time facilitated a real investment from our audience.'

Dr. Kylie Boltin, SBS Australia

This not only redefined how Australia’s most popular social media platform can be used for long-term news reporting and multimedia storytelling, it also prioritised a distribution platform that the Rohingya were already engaging with. The documentary has since been nominated for two Walkley awards - Australia’s premiere journalism awards - in both the category of Innovation and also Feature/Photographic essay. 

Strategies which include event-based engagement

So often when it comes to distributing shorts, people think mostly in terms of festivals and online platforms. But one of the most valuable ways for shorts to get seen and have an impact on the issues they address is through in-person or live engagement. 

Organisers and other community leaders find value in using film to connect people to the issues they address, and to each other. But they often have a limited window of time to both screen a film and have the substantive conversations they want to have. So shorts become a valuable asset in these contexts.

Collisions is an example of a 17-minute Virtual Reality (VR) immersive documentary directed by Lynette Wallworth and produced by Nicole Newnham that was also used in the context of event-based engagement. It brings viewers into the world and story of a Martu tribe elder in the remote Western Australian desert, where in the 1950s he witnessed - pre-contact - an atomic test. The team wanted to use it in settings where they could shift discussions about destructive technologies to productive ends. 

Collisions was the first VR work to receive commissioning funds from the World Economic Forum and was presented to world leaders at the 2016 Davos event. From there, it was invited to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty meetings at the UN in Vienna, and on to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York ahead of a vote to adopt a new resolution to ban nuclear weapons. It was also invited to the Timbie Forum on Arms Control at the US State Department. As a result, many different heads of state and those contemplating legislation to contain nuclear weapons experienced the piece. 

The team travelled to these and many other meetings carrying portable headsets. Importantly, at the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty meeting in Vienna, says Wallworth: “We walked into a room with a sign outside the large doors that read ‘Closed Meeting of Eminent Persons Group’ and inside thirteen men - including Hans Blix, members for South Korea, China, Africa and other nations - sat in large swivel chairs discussing the nuclear safety of the world.” The men stopped their discussions to watch Collisions. The team found the intimacy of the form to be a huge benefit to their efforts. “It locked off viewing for VIPs whose attention is always being pulled in several directions,” said Wallworth. Affirming the value of the experience, Hans Blix explained that it was useful “because an atomic test is, to most people, simply an abstract concept.” The visceral nature of the experience made communicating the effects of the device potently real, even for those gathered to discuss the nuclear safety of the world.

These gatherings led to further invitations and to more presentations to key people in positions of power, including: the Washington Climate Summit 2016, where the team set up headsets in public viewing areas as well as in the green room so they could target particular speakers, and Parliament House Canberra, where Collisions was shown to parliamentarians the day before a vote in the House on the UN resolution. The piece added a layer of potent emotional impact to these discussions.  Wallworth says, 'My sense was that I was talking with people surrounded by layers and layers of paper, but no direct first-hand experience. And that’s where Collisions, as a first-hand account of a nuclear test, using an extremely immersive medium, proved so powerful.'

In one important encounter while presenting the work at the World Economic Forum China gathering, the grandson of the film’s protagonist began to explain to an Australian political bureaucrat his sense of the flawed nature of the consultation process that gained signatures of elders in the Martu community for an agreement to a uranium mine. As it turned out, this very person had written the White Paper for the Prime Minister and Cabinet on exactly this process, and was now hearing stories directly from the ground that could never have reached him otherwise. In another encounter in Vienna, a senior government official who would have sign-off on the proposed mine watched Collisions and entered into an hour-long discussion on revelations contained within the work.

In the end, the mine has not gone ahead, and Western Australia had a change of government that may mean it never will. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) passed on July 7, 2017. It is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading towards their total elimination. We can’t know how much the piece and these series of private viewings and conversations influenced these decisions, but the team’s targeted and focused event-based efforts most certainly added to the pressure around these important decisions at a crucial moment. In recognition of this effect, Wallworth was named by Foreign Policy magazine as one of the year’s 100 leading global thinkers for 'for immersing audiences in the destructive power of the nuke.'

Geek Out: Ideas for further reading

Campaigns with transmedia characteristics

We’ve been really impressed by the transmedia characteristics of many of the campaigns we’ve already described. Like the American Promise campaign, which involved a feature-length, a short, a book, and an app; the Quipu project, which involved a short, a phone line, and an online interactive story-based website; or the Shelbyville Multimedia project, with a series of 2-5 minute pieces on each of the protagonists in the film, two 30-minute shorts, and a cookbook. 

Some of our favorite transmedia characteristics around a film impact campaign were uncomplicated. They simply offered a way for an audience member to engage more deeply with the film by connecting it to other media or materials. For example, The Bible Tells Me So team worked with the Human Rights Campaign to create this Bible-based advocacy curriculum. Another project, ONWARD by Active Voice Lab for Sojourners, also incorporates Bible study questions into the platform for each film featured. The Presbyterian Church USA put out Locked in a Box and an accompanying Bible-focused study guide, which has been an effective organising tool for its justice work around immigrant detention.

Immigrant Nation was an interactive storytelling project designed to document the United States' diverse immigrant narratives and experiences and share them with the world. It used a few central shorts, The Caretaker and The Mayor to inspire visitors to share their own stories online and in the context of a traveling exhibit that featured photographs, a timeline, and a story collection booth. Live events created opportunities for audiences to share a short anecdote relating to their personal immigrant story, either online, or on custom-designed postcards, and then the stories were collected and illustrated on a live mural. Audiences were able to see their personal story added to a live art piece in real time, and by the end of the live event, the communities’ collective story was represented on the finished mural, often more than 12 feet wide. Altogether, these shorts led to more than 1000 contributions - powerful stories of immigration that were created and shared by users of the online storytelling platform.

The 9.70 team in Colombia used YouTube videos to respond to a mainstream media blackout and to defend their work against a government misinformation campaign. Filmmaker Victoria Solano became a YouTuber, regularly posting video responses to the film’s following and asking fans to tweet and share the videos broadly to spread the word about the legislation. See here, and here. In this way, the short YouTube videos and their film worked hand in hand to inform, educate and support farmers in their effort to defend against an illegitimate law and push back against the authorities who were determined to discredit the filmmakers.

We hope these examples have inspired - now it’s time to talk about the ins and outs of getting your film funded and distributed.


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