The 2011 Sundance Film festival wrapped last week and by all accounts the word among industry, insiders and critics alike on Park City’s picturesque Main Street was that the new crop of indy-docs and international features outshone the narratives and documentary premiers hands down.
Two documentaries received a lot of pre-festival buzz came from Sundance alumns –Pamela Yates’ Granito and Steve James’ The Interruptors — were the must-see documentaries in the festival and sold-out before the festival began. Granito is the personalized follow-up to Yates’ 1984 expose When the Mountains Tremble on the Guatemalan government’s genocide against the region’s indigenous people. James’ The Interruptors is an unflinching look at a group of ex-gang members turned community activists in the Chicago area who are trying to break the cycle of violence in their neighborhoods.
For those of us festival folks who couldn’t get a seat at these films, we did have one other opportunity to hear from the directors and ask them questions. Yates and James were on a Sundance’s Filmmaker Lodge panel “The Aha! Moment: Making Change Sticky . The panel discussion centered on new media outreach strategies and how to break new ground in extending social change outreach for documentaries. They were joined by documentary filmmaker and physician Dr. Maren Grainger-Monson and producer Ted Richane from social change outreach partners Cause and Effect.
All of the projects highlighted by the panel took a long view in measuring the social impact of documentary filmmaking. The panelists agreed that it was no longer possible to effect change by just having a documentary shown in front of an audience (if this was ever really a path to serious impact to begin with). Yates introduced her project by issuing a challenge to documentary film makers: “I want to send out a challenge to everyone here: It is not acceptable, if you are going to make a film about social issues or human rights, not to think about outreach and audience engagement at the outset of making your film … you are going to shortchange yourself as an artist if you don’t get involved from the very beginning and see it all the way through to the finish.”
Yates’ Granito is a case study in extending the social reach of a documentary feature by using a more comprehensive outreach strategy. Yates calls her film Granito an “exercise in collective memory.” Tied to that mission is a significant multimedia component that exists side-by-side with the film. Her team has built a Web portal for Guatemalan civil war veterans to share their memories with younger generations complimenting the film’s themes of justice and memory. According to Yates, an astonishing 70 percent of Guatemalans are under thirty and have no direct memory of the civil war and genocide that griped Guatemala in the 1970’s and 1980’s. When the film (in conjunction with When the Mountains Tremble) is shown in various communities, citizens are encouraged to share stories, photos and videos of the era as a living digital witness to the atrocities. These story elements will be posted on the site and continually updated.
James finished his film the day before it’s festival debut and was already scheduling screenings and discussing community outreach strategies with Salt Lake City community activists and the film’s “stars.”
Although Maren Grainger-Monson did not have a film in this year’s festival, she did share a current work in progress called The Revolutionary Optimists. The film was created in partnership with The Stanford center for Biomedical Research, The Gates Foundation, Independent Television Service (ITVS) and The Sundance Institute. The Revolutionary Optimists is a complete multi-media project that looks at the crisis of endemic poverty in Calcutta, India. While the feature film covers the work of a troupe of young poverty activists and theater performers in Calcutta who call themselves the “Daredevils,” the outreach program assets go beyond the scope of the film. There are eight mobile-ready “trigger films,” a central project Web hub, a citizen mobile phone reporting application that uses Google Maps in helping local activists identify and report trash fields or unsafe water supplies to other activists, non-governmental aid agencies and authorities. In addition, there is also a teacher’s guide for classroom use. According to Granger-Monson: “We started with a more traditional outreach program, but we were spending so much time with the kids in the film that we realized that we wanted to give back more directly to them. In partnership with the Bay Area video Coalition we started looking at new digital tools that could be used by the kids on the ground in Calcutta.” Grainger-Monson’s hope is that after Calcutta they can use these mapping tools in other parts of the world.
What all of these filmmakers agreed upon was that the field of non-fiction storytelling has grown away from a one-size-fits-all, mass media strategy. Given the new platforms available to filmmakers aligned with new Web-based distribution tools, success is not geared toward getting a distribution deal and having a documentary appear in theaters. Yates bluntly stated that those types of television and theatrical deals actually hurt the potential impact of a story because distributors traditionally locked up ancillary digital rights.
Outreach and impact are the new buzzwords in nonfiction storytelling. All of the panelists agreed that new social media tools and Web 2.0 platforms offer unprecedented outreach possibilities to filmmakers. Whileit is still too early to accurately gauge if these strategies will work in moving audiences beyond advocacy and into direct action, the sense of excitement and optimism around new media permeated all of this year’s festival.
Perhaps Ted Richane summed it up best at the panel discussion: “Social change is the goal. All the pieces — Web, PR, social media — all contribute toward that and we measure success that way.”
Photos copyright 2011 Daniel Thornton