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The Optimistic Pessimists: Filmmakers at the Forefront of Social Impact

19/11/2014 17:45 GMT | Updated 06/02/2015 12:59 GMT

impact award


"I felt deeply pessimistic, I must have done to have made such a bleak film, but also optimistic or I wouldn't have done it."

Joshua Oppenheimer, the director ofThe Act of Killing, was talking to a room of European filmmakers a few days ago at CPH:Dox in Copenhagen. His film, a previous winner of the BRITDOC Impact Award, broke through 40 years of silence in Indonesia to provoke the first public discussions of, and apologies for, the anti-communist purge which killed half a million people. It was an extraordinary achievement, one that must have seemed unattainable when the process of filming began.

Click here to watch the 5 minute film on The Act of Killing's impact.

Every year new documentary filmmakers step forward driven by the same mix of optimism and pessimism. They hope that their story can cut through the noise and communicate with enough people, or maybe just the right people, to make a difference. But they are aware that they are up against, at best, the difficulty of being heard and engaging those who are busy and pre-occupied and, at worst, up against powerful and organised vested interests.

This is the 4th year of the Impact Award. Previous films we have highlighted include The Age of Stupid, a British film which triggered a nationwide emissions-cutting movement called 10:10; Invisible War led to an overhaul of the way the US army deals with rape; and Armadillo destroyed public support for Denmark's role in the war in Afghanistan.

As we prepare to honour another five films and their teams who have overcome every barrier to create meaningful social impact, it's interesting to reflect on how and why certain stories are able to cut through. The graphic below is from our Impact Field Guide - a free guide for filmmakers to help them devise a strategy.

social impact award


We have started to see a correlation between the storytelling style of successful impact films and the contexts they are entering.

Invisible War was simply able to reveal the extent of rape in the military and the effects it was having on soldier's lives. They had no organised lobby to oppose them and because for the public the 1 in 4 statistic of sexual assault in the US military was so shocking, the film got a lot of coverage. Bully, a film about the bullying crisis in US schools, didn't break a new story - in fact many stories of young suicides had been punctuating the news. Instead it spotlighted a known issue, bringing the necessary impetus to create a moment of national action but, like Invisible War, faced no organised pro-bullying lobby.

Gasland, about the downsides of fracking, is an example of a film which comes into more difficult territory. It was an unheard-of problem in a context where the opposition to deeper engagement is organised and well-financed: the fossil fuel industry. It is a prime example of the capacity of film as a medium to investigate an issue, bringing an entirely suppressed story to light.

And finally Budrus, about the non-violent resistance movement in Palestine, operates in perhaps the toughest of all places - taking on an issue that audiences already have fatigue over but, unlike bullying, the barriers to genuine progress run far deeper than a need for a shift in attitudes. People's minds are often made up and their positions supported by intransigent community leaders, press and lobbyists. But Budrus has been able to achieve something by humanising the issue. There are no new facts, research or data with such an approach - simply people and story.

This is documentary's greatest strength - the ability to generate empathy, to tell a story that puts us in another's shoes, to experience the world from their perspective for an hour or more. Pessimistically speaking, such films are hard to make and hard to get in front of the right people. Optimistically, when it happens it can be nothing short of a revolutionary act.

The 2014 BRITDOC Impact Award winners are announced Thursday here on Huffington Post UK at 1pm in NY and 6pm in London.

The Impact Field Guide is a free online resource for any filmmaker interested in using their film strategically for change.