Sunday, June 21, 2009

How does a film do more than tell a story?

I've been thinking a lot about how film can result in action for social causes. The first thought I have is that documentaries generate very impassioned responses from people. That's a documentary's first job, to get the attention of your conscience.

But less clear, and more important, is how can this sudden sense of solidarity, this empathy felt by the viewers, motivate them to take individual steps that will result in resolutions. And what about action on a larger scale? Do documentary films about social problems facilitate coalitions between the public, civil society organizations and government agencies that will solve them?

These questions arose after I watched a film at the Human Rights Watch International Film festival, Crude by Joe Berlinger. Crude follows a U.S. lawyer, an Ecuadorian Lawyer and the Secoya community in Ecuador as they fight Chevron in a law suit over the 18 billion gallons of toxic waste the company dumped into the Amazon over 28 years of oil drilling. I'm not going to go into depth about the film here, but you can read about it Definitely see it. The film brings to light real human struggles in the face of a powerful company's inhumane actions. It premiers in NYC at the IFC Center from Sept 9 - 22.

The poignant question for the filmmaker afterwards was how this film can do something tangible to bring justice to the Ecuadorians suffering because of this environmental disaster. One part of the answer was of course to generate a critical mass for the cause, but another was that film can be a tool to build the efforts of ongoing campaigns that fight injustice.

In making the film, the crew forged a connection with the organization Amazon Watch. Amazon Watch works to protect the Amazon and to advance the rights of indigenous people. Their website:

One of their campaigns aims to hold Chevron accountable for their environmental negligence in Ecuador and the $27 billion in damage they caused in local indigenous communities. Crude has definitely created buzz for Amazon Watch and the issue as a whole. The film screening is an opportunity for the organization to reach a large audience at a moment when they are particularly inspired and primed to take action - when the cause is fresh in their mind.

This blog post is an example of how film inspires action. I saw the movie, and now I'm doing what I can to spread the word. Go to the campaign website to help realize their goal. You can send a letter to Chevron shareholders, send Chevron a message that you disapprove of their actions or encourage a city to boycott Chevron products.

But a question that lingers for me is what has this film done for the indigenous communities? What has this publicity - this display of their lives; their health defects; and their vulnerability and strength in the face of an environmental disaster to millions of people - done for them? Have they been empowered? Did they feel like the story was told accurately and in consultation with them?

If a film can tell a story the way the people it's about want it to be told, that's when a film is empowering. This builds confidence, and for communities with minimal political power, gives them a voice to advocate for their recognition and well-being.

I'm interested in hearing thoughts about how you think documentary film and media can positively impact social causes.

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