Dear Documentary Filmmakers: Are these endless scenes of committee meetings supposed to win me over to your cause?
Social issue documentary can be an incredibly important and potentially powerful tool to instill change. Done properly, it can help strengthen the support of those already on your side, and, ideally get the word out to educate others on your issue and hopefully win new supporters. Mishandled, your doc makes no difference, reaches no one, and has cost you time and resources that could have served your cause better in another way.
Laying aside the question for now of whether or not your cause can sustain a feature-length documentary (I’ll get to that in a future DDF), you have to consider very carefully how you communicate the most salient aspects of the topic to your viewers so that they will care. Is your advocacy film a series of boring filmed meetings and dry statistics, or is it a dynamic encapsulation of the issue that will engage and motivate your audience?
Some filmmakers assume their audience has far more background knowledge about the issue than they actually do and end up making a film that is at best preaching to the converted and at worst impenetrable to a potential convert. Others err in the opposite direction and spoon feed too much context, resulting in an “Issue 101” type of film that is probably old news to the initiated and overwhelming and/or boring to newcomers. Finding the right balance between these extremes can be tricky. Always keep in mind that your ultimate goal should be forging some kind of connection between the viewer and what’s on the screen. If it’s strong enough, that connection can lead to involvement.
There are many ways to approach creating that connection for advocacy-oriented docs, and some may be more effective than others given the nature of your topic and what’s at stake. For example, if you’re advocating for the change of a discriminatory law, and a local politician is running on a platform to eliminate that law, you might try to immerse your viewers in her campaign, putting them behind the scenes in the lead up to the election. If your issue isn’t quite so topical or visible – say, increasing public awareness of a disease that’s on the rise – you may consider a different tack, focusing on personal stories of those already afflicted.
Above, I complain about committee meetings and statistics. I’m not joking – I have seen numerous social issue films try to sway audience members by including long, drawn out footage from board meetings, committee meetings, planning meetings – meetings of every kind in which the issues of the film are discussed or debated. I’m sure that there are exceptions, but, generally, meetings are boring. Find a different way to get the most pertinent information from that meeting to your audience that doesn’t involve a bunch of people sitting around a table. Using the example above of following a politician in her campaign, while observing some of her strategy sessions might be interesting to a limited degree, I’d likely be much more interested in seeing her debating the issue with her opponent or with her constituents. Along the same lines, rattling off statistics can often lead to glazed over looks on viewers’ faces. For many people, numbers remain in the realm of the abstract. Hit them with too many, and they check out. Instead of concentrating on stats, try to find concrete representations of those numbers. Personal stories humanize statistics and can help influence public opinion more than playing games with numbers. That said, there’s nothing wrong with judiciously using some statistics to make a point, of course – everything in moderation.
In the end, whatever approach you choose for your social issue doc, always remember your audience. Be clear about who you’re trying to reach and think about how you’re trying to reach them. Habitually question the purpose of what you’re including in your film – why are you using it, what role does it play, and what do you want the audience to get from it? If you don’t keep these questions in the forefront, your risk losing your audience. If that happens, what’s the point of making an advocacy film?