As outlined in the Documentaries for Change (DfC) Final Report published today, the DfC project has sprouted from wild imaginations. One could say it takes a wild imagination to visualize spaces and places where people meet to influence change, or to imagine an entire society—where freedom of expression and democracy are paramount, and no one holds a monopoly on truth. Envisioning such a world was our starting point, but through the art of documentary movies that vision was manifested, namely to harness the power of documentaries to bring about the social change.
Art helps to unpack complex concepts. For example, the concept of cultural icebergs, proposed in 1976 by Edward T. Hall, simply yet beautifully visualizes our assumptions about visible vs. invisible cultural values. Hall’s theory was that culture functions as an iceberg with external layer consisting of language, food, festivals – all gathered under what we currently call “Canadian multiculturalism”, while internal beliefs, values, attitudes and approaches underlying those behaviors, inclusive of social justice and human rights, remain at the base. Icebergs are solid but also water-based. They tend to melt given the right climate – for example, when we travel and are lucky enough to find deep, life-changing friendships, or when we feel safe, like we feel in the darkness of screening rooms and we realize our values are not uniquely ours but shared across cultures and times. To reach the point when we feel we can meet “others” at the depth of our cultural icebergs we need something to move us, a powerful narrative, informed by research, and elevated by art. Facts cannot be doubted, but we need art desperately because art speaks outside governments, societies and ideologies. Art speaks when we are not able to and legitimize claims that are otherwise scattered. Some would say that the very essence of artistic struggle is a fight for social justice. And art uses many forms of expression, but when you find that combination of photographic narratives, research, and poetry – you have a documentary.
In 2013, MCIS Language Services surveyed 175 interpreters and translators, asking them how safe they feel in their neighborhoods, how satisfied they are with the services they receive, and how involved are they with their communities. We also asked them about different types of media and how they influence decisions: television, social media and documentaries. To our surprise we found that television and social media have a small span of influence while documentaries, in spite of their limited – not daily – consumption do, and in fact influence them a great deal (DfC Report, page 11-12). Respondents also indicated that if discussion would follow the screening it would help them to understand even better what they need to do to change behaviours or attitudes, either their own or of their family and community.
Just a year later (2014), a much larger and more expensive report by the Skoll foundation, Participant Index (TPI) focusing on impact of issue – focused entertainment was published. The report found that 75% of viewers of all media placed human rights as the most important social issue, followed by “healthcare, education, crime, and hunger”; 53% of viewers who were impacted emotionally were willing to take some sort of an action especially on global health and poverty (55%), national poverty (55%) and human or animal rights (52% and 51%). TPI stated very clearly that social justice “entertainment” mobilizes people to act while the mainstream topics media (movies or commercials) simply do not. There are many implications to this finding but it is a part of separate discussion (please see my other blog entry outlining opportunities and challenges related to engaging with social justice art).
However, to us the model of DfC’s pilot was clear: a (Canadian) documentary + discussion panel + action plan = engagement and mobilization. The first two years were all about refinement – how do we curate a very large body of Canadian documentaries to find pieces with the highest community impact, who to invite, how to position a discussion to engage and reach enough people, what kind of curriculum to introduce to train people in skills necessary to help them conduct individual screenings. There were hits and misses.
Fast forward two years, 12 workshops and 25 community screenings later (inclusive of total audience reach estimated at 1500) we knew that we can now standardize the process. We also realized we have a library with (unlimited) licenses that we can offer to communities free of charge. We also have all equipment (paid by the Ontario Trillium Foundation financing the pilot) that we can lend out too. The DfC Mobile Theatre documentaries have a well balanced approach of titles addressing human and labour rights, immigration, domestic violence, disability, youth and community health. We also have a clear process of what to do and when to do it. Above all we realized that we also have now a group of highly skilled Fellows that can be hired by communities, charities and interest groups to guide event planning e.g. finding venue, catering, managing AV and technical pieces; offer language solutions for linguistically diverse communities for better reach e.g. subtitling documentaries, translation and interpreting; and create advocacy/ audience mobilization related to tasks of finding appropriate panelists, designing an action plan e.g. petition, letter and creating photo journalistic pieces/ blog entries (DfC list of Fellows here). Certainly, the DfC Program will remain involved as the back bone to ensure all events under our umbrella will receive basic promotion and continue with data collection to provide objective biannual reviews.
Yet, beside all the outputs and outcomes, something else emerged during the course of this program, the realization that social justice art has a very significant place in the hierarchy of human needs. Social justice and human rights are undoubtedly incomparable motivator, but the question is what motivate us and why audiences, irrespective of their language, social status or ethnicity, remained so responsive.
My view is that to realize our full human potential we need autonomy, and when we remove ourselves from existing structures of society, family and ideology only art and culture can fill that gap. Art and culture help provide the base for autonomy, allowing us to see ourselves as independent, free human beings searching for meaning and purpose and making choices based on our deep sense of right and wrong. Artists know that an entire story of injustice cannot be told by one person, one party and one lens but only by a series of frames that need to contextualize each other. And, as (social justice) art starts revealing conflicting narratives dwelling at the bottom of our cultural iceberg, we began to discover ourselves in the future. Many things do happen when stories are truthful and taken to heart. And changes do occur when people are brought into a dialogue. We respond to the art because it is essential for our survival, because it assists humanity with finding a meaning and purpose.
Endlessly quoted and paraphrased but still true when applied to the Documentaries for Change Margaret Mead’s statement appropriately sums up the learnings gathered under the DfC program 2013-2015:
“We indeed should not doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Please find Documentaries for Change Conference (October 16, 2015) highlights here.