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In Reykjavík, changing the world means changing minds
by Elena Lazic
The panel at the Reykjavík International Film Festival brought together documentary filmmakers with different approaches to impact producing and impact campaigns
“Filmmaking is one of the most powerful storytelling tools in the world.” It is with these strong words that moderator Jessica Edwards opened the “Stories with Impact” panel organised as part of the Industry Days of the Reykjavík International Film Festival (29 September-9 October), which gathered four filmmakers whose documentaries seek to engage audiences about pressing issues. The concept of an “impact film”, and more generally the idea that films can change the world, was at the centre of the festival’s Impact Day on Friday 7 October, which also included a pitching session for the six environmental documentary projects selected for the Impact of the North workshop. The day concluded with another panel, titled “Backlash: What the F is Going On?!”
Edwards hinted at the divide between raising awareness and creating change with her opening question: did the panellists get into making “impactful” films via journalism, or via activism? Quebec director and producer Sylvie Van Brabant evoked the making of her feature debut, Depuis que le monde est monde (1981), a film about childbirth in Quebec that began with her own experience of giving birth, and ended up having a huge impact on the legal framework around midwives in the province. By contrast, Girl Gang [+see also:
interview: Susanne Regina Meures
film profile] director Susanne Regina Meures described encountering interesting stories in passing, throughout her daily life, and described her cinema as more character-driven than issue-driven.
The most research-based process was that of Lena Karbe, whose debut feature, Black Mambas [+see also:
film profile], emerged from her academic background and her pre-existing interest in nature conservation. She realised that the assumptions at work in many academic papers on the subjects were racist, even if the intentions of the writers were good. Because the problem was one of perspective, her intention with the film wasn’t simply to inform (about nature conservation and racism), but to create emotions within the viewers so that they may develop empathy for the subjects’ views and rid themselves of the racist perspective they may unintentionally adopt on those issues.
Emotions also play an important part in Jason Loftus’ work. The filmmaker explained that he goes after stories and subjects that move him: “I don’t think, ‘What’s a story I could tell to advance that point?’, but actually, ‘Why does this move me?’ [...] That is also ‘impact filmmaking’, in a way, because it impacted me.” His project, Eternal Spring, is “about narrative”: the Chinese government’s propaganda sought to make outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong look bad, better to repress its members. In that context, the act of giving the victims a voice — of using storytelling in an opposite way — qualifies as activism and, indeed, impact.
To the question of how awareness of a project’s potential impact influences its making, Van Brabant evoked being in the editing room with a documentary about fracking when the new prime minister announced that the government would invest in fracking, which naturally galvanised her and her team, and imbued the project with even more urgency.
But when the filmmakers have to protect their subjects, the films they make cannot afford to be so openly militant: Meures explained that she lets the audience decide whether the treatment of the successful influencer in Girl Gang by her family constitutes child abuse or not. Likewise, Karbe was concerned about how far her film should deconstruct and criticise the system that her subjects inhabit, because she did not want them to lose their jobs if they were perceived as too critical. Both filmmakers explained that their concern while making the film was to be truthful to their subjects’ reality, and to engage viewers emotionally: “Change happens deep down.” In their cases, the debates happen after the screenings, once the film is already made: “Not all films are suited to an impact campaign.”
The duty of care towards the subjects therefore extends beyond filming, during the film’s promotional or “impact” campaign. Meures cited an example where she had to turn down an offer to show one of her films on national television because it could have put the subject in danger; another one of her films was pulled from distribution altogether when its protagonist said she no longer wanted it to be seen.
Loftus explained that on his film, by contrast, being seen by the rest of the world was one of the main reasons his subjects got involved in the project: although they knew it was dangerous, “they felt it was the best course of action for them.” They believed that exposing the government’s oppression was the best way to stop it. This process of exposing continues with the impact campaign.
Dialogue with the film’s subjects about the risks involved therefore remains paramount, and of course a much higher priority than the film’s potential impact. Karbe highlighted another aspect to consider with regards to impact producing: she intentionally did not get organisations and foundations that do have some power over conservation involved in her project from the start, because she was very aware that they might have “their own agenda.” Now that Black Mamba is made, however, she is showing it to decision makers who do have real power to change things, and that is where a significant part of the film’s impact lies.
Loftus described a similar experience on his film, which has now caught the eye of human rights organisations — he did not think of getting involved with organisations in this way ahead of filming, rather this impact has been revealed to him afterwards. Now, however, he is working with impact consultancy agency Together Films; the impact campaign they are working on (screenings for various groups and communities with a vested interest in some of the film’s themes) dovetails general efforts to promote the film. On future projects however, he plans to get someone on the team to think of the film’s impact from the start, something he could not have done on Eternal Spring even if he had thought of it, because he was already too busy directing and producing.
A major theme that emerged from the conversation was the need to show the film to as many people as possible; as complex and new-age as impact campaigns can get, this old-fashioned concept remained the common thread that tied all the projects together. Karbe mentioned that she will soon be touring Black Mambas through schools in Germany, with a discussion guide provided after the screening. The idea is to guide the audience rather than tell them what they are supposed to get out of the film — a sentiment echoed by Meures, who added that her film Girl Gang wasn’t didactic, and that providing the tools for the film to have an impact was more “a matter of framing.”
Loftus, on the other hand, whose film is a pointed plea against labour camps and religious intolerance, explained that the projections of his film included a call to action at the end: a QR code on the screen guides viewers to a website offering more information and explaining how they can get involved in the fight. A discussion guide developed with Together Films is also provided. “When you work with impact producers, it forces you to think about goals,” he added. Specifically, his goals with Eternal Spring are to bring labour camps back into the conversation, and to start a wider conversation around religious freedom.
“It’s about changing minds,” Loftus concluded, and although the other panellists did not necessarily work with impact producers in this way, they all shared that same objective.
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