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AFI Docs: Filmmakers Get Savvier About Fueling Social Change

WASHINGTON — Profit may not be a goal for many filmmakers showing their projects at AFI Docs, but making an impact is.

The challenge is finding the sweet spot: Social media and online platforms have expanded a project’s potential reach, but target audiences are bombarded with messages and information.

Throughout the week, filmmakers have been talking about how to get savvier about how their projects can trigger social action. The festival held Impact Labs, designed to help filmmakers with garnering grassroots support, media attention and lawmaker interest. The idea was to move beyond mere awareness of an issue.

“We are seeing more and more in recent years, with the re-emergence of documentary film, that there is also this interesting intersection with policy and film and social action,” said Heidi Nel, principal at Picture Motion in Washington.

At a panel on Thursday called Impact 2.0, she cited “The Invisible War,” Kirby Dick’s 2012 exposé of military sexual assault, which was credited with sparking interest in congressional legislation. “Blackfish,” about the treatment of captive killer whales at Sea World, led to a fall in attendance at the theme park. “Food Chains,” about working conditions for agricultural food laborers, triggered scrutiny from the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said that filmmakers have “an ability for you to do things that elected officials cannot. There is something about moving images with audio that is very emotive, that is not only able to make a rational argument but also a very emotional one.”

Dan O’Meara, campaign director at distributor Radius, said that “as a theatrical distributor we have to think about not just can we make our money back but can we also produce a profit.”

As such, they are looking for how they can organize around a film’s release so that it “will have the effect of getting people to feel part of something, and [we] hope that the film can become a rallying point for their own action.”

“Fed Up,” focusing on America’s obesity epidemic, grossed about $1.5 million at the box office. That’s hardly a record breaker for a documentary, but it is still a healthy figure for the nonfiction format. The film also promoted the idea of a 10-day sugar fast, and some 60,000 people signed up.

Part of Radius’ strategy was to work with public interest groups that had an engaged membership that would show up on opening weekend, as well as to perform PR stunts that drew attention. Along with MomsRising, they had tins of “Fed Up”-branded M&Ms delivered to 29 members of Congress who wanted to weaken school lunch nutrition guidelines. Executive producer Laurie David wrote an op-ed that shamed the lawmakers for their stance.

“That had PR value,” O’Meara said. “That helped us stay in the news cycle.”

“The point,” he said, “is that there is a difference between impact and social action. Impact is something that we measure later on; action is something that we organize now, together,” he said.

Among those participating in the Impact Labs were director Zach Ingrasci and producer Salam Darwaza, whose project “Salam Neighbor” is having its world premiere on Saturday.

The project, about the refugee crisis along the Syrian border, follows Ingrasci and co-director Chris Temple as they go to live among 80,000 refugees in Jordan.

Ingrasci and Darwaza hope that the project will first help change perceptions about refugees and the Arab world, and then help focus lawmaker attention on the need for assistance and other types of aid.

That is no small feat. The full scale of the crisis, with 4 million refugees, can be so daunting as to make it difficult for an audience to comprehend.

“What happens is really beautiful,” Darwaza said. “What we saw was East and West coming together, and something good and positive happening.”

As such, they have been learning about when it is best to engage lawmakers, like at key moments in Senate and House budget hearings. They also are working with the U.N. Refugee Agency and Save the Children, among other groups.

“If we can mobilize that shift in the narrative to have real change in policy, that can have a huge effect,” Ingrasci said. “We really want to confront this perception that refugees are a burden. In reality, refugees are a solution to the problem.”

The movie depicts some of the ingenuity of members of the refugee population, with some 3,000 businesses operating at the camp.

“The goal is to create a more sustainable and connected response for Syrian refugees,” Ingrasci said.

Lieu recently hosted a Capitol Hill screening of “Fortitude,” a crime drama airing on Pivot, that also has been described as an “eco-thriller.” Set in the Norwegian Arctic, viewers may take away a better understanding of the threat of global warming.

Even though it is not a documentary, it also is an example of the challenge for any filmmaker with a desire for social change: meeting audiences where they are — or in this case, fans of action thrillers.

“It is very subtle about the climate change issue, but you want to watch it and get captivated because of what the show is,” said Lieu, who introduced climate legislation in April. “Only later do you sort of know that there are some interesting climate change issues there.”

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