Everyday it seems a new and powerful documentary filmmaker-journalism partnership emerges. Filmmakers and journalists collaborating on projects. Digital news platforms adding on a short film section, some of which is made in-house, some commissioned externally. From The Economist to The Nation, The Guardian to The New York Times.
Not only do some journalists find value in telling their stories in film as well as in print, but some are thinking about impact (look no further than the solutions journalism trend) and, at this moment when trust is low, building direct relationships with audiences is a way that journalists are attempting to restore confidence.
Many news teams are incorporating community engagement and evaluative learning/self reflection into their models. In fact, many assert that the survival and relevance of the news industry largely depends on newsrooms’ ability to build meaningful relationships with the people they serve.
Some newsrooms are also getting more explicit about impact - even as they avoid advocacy. The CNN agency, for example, has an impact page where a reader can “get involved” or “donate” to an organisation or effort. The Marshall Project is another example. It is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organisation that focuses explicitly on the U.S. criminal justice system and has the explicit aim of educating and enlarging the audience of people who care about the state of criminal justice in the U.S.
These growing intersections do demand that documentary filmmakers abide by journalistic standards and this is new territory for some. For example, in journalistic partnerships, impeccable standards of accuracy and fairness becomes essential and filmmakers may not be able to lean on poetic license quite as much.
The quicker turnaround time for some shorts (when compared to some features that can take years) can also mean a need for increased sensitivity on a few fronts related to impact, ethics and accountability. It can mean you have less time to build relationships and trust with communities and important stakeholders. Transparency and clear communication become essential and it’s a good idea to prepare the film subjects up-front about your distribution plans.
You’ll also have less time to vet your impact goals, solutions, and representations with impacted communities and key stakeholders who understand the problems and needs. But feedback and input from key stakeholders can make or break a campaign.
Sometimes it means getting a story out before there’s been a lot of time to reflect on the risks. Sometimes that’s a necessary risk, but it should be a calculated one. So, take a moment to consider the possibilities.
When the stakes are high for journalists, they are high for filmmakers too. If you have not already downloaded Safe and Secure, we recommend you do so now: SafeandSecure.film. Also, have a look at the library of resources available at Witness: www.library.witness.org. Both can help orient you to the issues and questions of relevance to your safety as an impact-oriented film team.