January 2015 will mark thirty years since Pamela Yates' 'When the Mountains Tremble' premiered at the first Sundance Film Festival in 1985. It also marks three decades of Yates' dedication to making films about human rights issues across the Americas.
Together with her partners Paco de Onís and Peter Kinoy, Yates has been a trailblazer in using films for social change and an inspiration for filmmakers like myself who direct our energies to a specific issue over time.
Over the past three decades, Yates and her team have produced seven critically-acclaimed feature documentaries, most of which premiered at Sundance, along with two accompanying multimedia projects and two series highlighting the stories of people struggling for human rights in Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and the United States.
This impressive body of work is matched by their intentional, trust-based relationships with key partners across these countries to ensure their films could contribute to the growth and success of the movements they were documenting.
Yates' achievements are a testament to the advantages of focusing filmmaking on a particular issue or region over an extended period of time. Informed by Yates' and my own experiences, here are four benefits I can see of working in this way:
1. Designing interventions (aka films) according to the needs of a movement
A commitment to exploring a particular subject for the long haul makes it possible to produce films according to the needs of the field, instead of trying to fit a finished film into the particular needs of a movement.
Yates' first film, 'When the Mountains Tremble', came at a time when the world knew next to nothing about what was happening to the indigenous people of Guatemala. The film catapulted its protagonist Rigoberta Menchu, a survivor of the Guatemalan genocide, into the international arena, connecting her to public intellectuals, faith groups and policymakers who could support her quest for justice. In 1992, she became the first indigenous woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. At the time of filming, however, Yates was not aware that the violence she was documenting would amount to genocide. Twenty-five years after the film's release, it became clear the footage she shot could support the prosecution of the individuals responsible for the genocide. So Yates and her team produced another film to help indict the perpetrators. And they did.
2. Investing in an infrastructure for social change
Sustaining a decades-long career as an independent filmmaker can be extremely challenging. Yates has been able to do that by investing in the growth of Skylight Pictures, which produces the films, runs impact campaigns and creates accompanying materials according to the needs of the field.
Dedicating attention to an issue over time opens up new sources of funding when individuals and foundations can support the project at different stages. Whereas many funders are not interested - and, in some cases, not allowed - to fund the production of a film, many will gladly assist with the subsequent outreach, distribution and impact campaigns, sometimes over several years. This allows filmmakers to diversify our donor base and not rely on a diminishing pool of traditional documentary funders. This diversification can also generate greater creative freedom, since a filmmaker is not dependent on the creative and political leanings of a small number of commissioning editors.
3. Building long-term relationships of trust with partners in the field
There's a lot of talk today about the importance of bringing in NGOs, foundations and other outreach partners early on in your production process. For filmmakers moving from one issue to another, the time and energy needed to build those relationships can quickly become prohibitive. When you are attuned to one subject over many years and your work is deliberate and has integrity, these relationships carry over from project to project. You also build such strong relationships that it is no longer necessary to involve all partners in every step of the process. Partners who have worked with you before understand your need for journalistic independence, but they have also come to learn that you are going to act responsibly and ethically toward their communities, especially since you plan to come back.
4. Witnessing the evolution and victories of a movement you have become part of
This is by far the greatest advantage. Imagine that a film you've created becomes the key evidence to convict the dictator who orchestrated a genocide twenty-five years earlier? That's what Yates and her team did.
What more is there to say?
This is part of a series of blogs released for the announcement of the winners of the BRITDOC Impact Award, which celebrates annually the documentary films that made the greatest positive impact on society. www.britdocimpactaward.org
Julia Bacha is a Peabody award-winning filmmaker, impact strategist and Creative Director at Just Vision. Her film 'Budrus' won the 2012 BRITDOC Impact Award.