Creating Reel Change

Movie and television directors, producers, and writers interested in saying something of substance to their audiences have often been confronted with a quote generally attributed to former studio head Jack Warner: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Despite this adage’s implication that films and TV programs should avoid the political and stick to entertaining (and make their studios and networks gobs of money), a number of movies and TV shows over the years have dealt with vital issues and encouraged pro-social behavior.

Now—whether because of, or in response to, opportunities offered by newer media such as the Internet and cable television—a variety of untraditional film and documentary makers seek to do more than portray positive action on the screen. These companies and artists want to motivate their audiences to get better informed on their issues, volunteer to help the subjects of the movie or program, and even advocate for legislation that offers protection to victims and tries to right the wrongs portrayed.

Probably the most publicized of these filmmakers is former eBay president Jeff Skoll, who through his company Participant Productions has committed an estimated $100 million to co-financing and producing a slate of theatrical releases. These movies include An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary on global warming released earlier this year, and the current Fast Food Nation, about a marketing expert’s odyssey to discover how his hamburger chain really makes its meat.

Participant’s distinctiveness thus far hasn’t been marked in Hollywood’s traditional measures of achievement (four of the company’s movies were nominated for Oscars in 2005 but have had mixed success at the box office). Rather, its chief innovation is creation of Internet-based campaigns for each film that allow viewers to join with established organizations to both make personal changes and call for social action in response to the movie’s themes.

It’s difficult to measure the success of these campaigns. Participant’s October 2005 release of North Country (about a pioneering female coal miner harassed by male co-workers) was timed to allow audiences to support the National Organization for Women and other feminist groups in efforts to renew the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). North Country only grossed $18 million, meaning about 2 million people saw it in theaters. But if even a small percentage of that number demanded approval of the act, the film may have contributed to the bill’s passage in January 2006.

THE TV INDUSTRY has long been criticized for shying away from socially significant topics. But in recent years, the rise of cable television has allowed newer networks to present programs on controversial and vital issues of interest to their targeted audiences.

MTV, which has a reputation for offensive and sexually explicit programs, has also aired documentaries (many starring music and entertainment celebrities) intended to inform and inspire its teen and young adult audiences regarding issues—including discrimination and sexual health—that often escape mainstream media attention. Last summer, MTV announced plans for a special to feature hip-hop star Jay-Z and his efforts to raise awareness of the lack of safe drinking water in several countries during his September international concert tour. MTV’s Web site will offer ways for viewers to contribute to building “Play-Pumps,” playground carousels that pump fresh water as kids spin them.

Lifetime Television has gained solid ratings with its heavily female viewership for a series of issue-based movies and miniseries, including A Girl Like Me: The Gwen Araujo Story, about a Latina mother who first opposes then supports her son’s determination to live as a woman. Premiering last June, the movie was followed by public service announcements offering suggestions for encouraging tolerance and ending discrimination against transgender persons.

Lifetime’s public affairs office has emerged as a lobbying force in Washington, D.C., credited by Rep. Carolyn Maloney with assisting in the passage of legislation involving women’s issues such as quick DNA testing of rape kits and video voyeurism (the latter the subject of a 2004 Lifetime movie).

Many of the most vibrant movies and documentaries committed to advocacy come from less prominent filmmakers who use technologies such as DVDs and Web sites not only to inform supporters, but to distribute their work to much wider audiences than otherwise possible. Brave New Films, a Los Angeles-based company run by veteran television producer Robert Greenwald, has focused on creating documentaries (such as last year’s Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price) that premiere in theaters and then are shown in public DVD screenings with discussion sessions after the film.

The company’s current release, Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers, deals with corporations, including Halliburton and Blackwater, that collect billions in taxpayer funds while allegedly delivering shoddy services that endanger U.S. troops and Iraqi citizens. Brave New Films arranged screenings of the movie for thousands of groups in July, devoting each day of a particular week to different audiences and the causes supported by co-sponsoring groups. The timing of these screenings shortly before the 2006 elections was no accident: One of the moviemakers’ goals was to aid “get out the vote” drives across the country.

The filmmakers also hope to generate support for two proposed bills. One would form a congressional investigative entity to root out corruption and expose wrongdoers, modeled after the World War II-era “Truman Committee.” The other legislation is the Honest Leadership and Accountability in Contracting Act of 2006, which defines and demands stiff penalties for war profiteering.

THE SOCIAL ACTION goals of the three 20-something filmmakers behind the DVD documentary Invisible Children are equally ambitious. After graduating from film school, Jason Russell convinced childhood friends Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole to travel with him to Africa in 2003 to make a movie. The trio stumbled upon the story of thousands of children in northern Uganda, many of them orphans in refugee camps, who must hide in the countryside and in basements each night to avoid abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel force that turns its victims into child soldiers and maims or kills those who resist.

Invisible Children seems amateurish and silly in spots, but the film’s irreverence may make its heavy subject matter more appealing to the thousands of groups (mainly high school and college students) who have attended screenings around the United States. The movie’s Web site features stories of young people inspired by the documentary to raise thousands of dollars to fund educational programs set up by the filmmakers in Uganda. This school year, more than 600 Ugandan teenagers will have their schooling paid for by American student fundraisers and the sale of native bracelets through the Web site. Natalia Angelo, a spokesperson for the filmmakers, told Sojourners that one of the most gratifying aspects of the movie’s success has been the opportunity to spotlight stories of altruism and sacrifice by teens and young adults, which counters the prevailing myth of the supposed selfishness and materialism of American youth.

The short movies available through the New York-based Media That Matters Film Festival may seem small in scope, but they still convey a strong sense of urgency regarding the subjects they explore. The 16 documentaries and fictional films in the festival are first screened on the Internet and then made available on DVD each fall to educators across the country, along with teachers’ guides that can be downloaded from the festival Web site.

Internet links and information in the guides provide sources of detailed information and opportunities for volunteerism and advocacy relating to the movies’ broad range of themes. The festival is also affiliated with MediaRights, an organization that helps nonprofits and advocacy groups learn to use documentaries to reach out to potential supporters and create change.

One of the shorts in the festival is In the Morning, a prizewinning fictional movie based on the true story of an honor killing in Turkey, where a rape victim was murdered by her brother to prevent her from bringing further “shame” on the family. Filmmaker Danielle Lurie stresses that honor killings, which occur primarily in the Middle East, are not linked to Islam—the basis for the killings is tribal. Lurie hopes the movie—which, thanks to the Internet, can be seen in Turkey and throughout the world—might help persuade the young boys often chosen by their fathers to commit the murders (because they tend to get shorter sentences) to not kill their sisters.

Lurie might be echoing everyone from a Hollywood producer like Jeff Skoll to her fellow young filmmakers when she says, “I would be naive to say that any single film on its own could make a difference, but my hope is that a movie, along with other films and educational tools, could create enough awareness that those in positions of power could effect change.” Increasingly, it looks like these and other movies are placing the audience in those positions of power.


Donovan Jacobs is a writer, instructor with UCLA Extension and Act One: Writing for Hollywood, and story development consultant based in Los Angeles.

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