How to create social impact with your filmmaking

The world is changing rapidly, encouraging us all to reflect on our priorities and make better use of the tools we still have available to us. In this guest blog, Egbert Wits from EngageMedia reflects on how filmmakers can harness the power of online video as a tool for social change.


In these strange and challenging times, we are more reliant than ever before on screens and audiovisual content. Can you imagine quarantine without a screen and an internet connection? Global online video consumption has been on the rise for the past few years, video is exploding on social media, and these trends will surely only be heightened as people across the world are advised to self isolate and stay at home.


This rapidly increasing demand for online video presents filmmakers with a unique opportunity for creating social impact. However, it is important to understand that just because 10,000 people watch your well-crafted video about plastic pollution on Vimeo, doesn’t necessarily mean your video is contributing to social change. 


In a world where TikTok is being used for activism, filmmakers have to think about their social impact strategies. They need to ask themselves, what are they actually trying to change? And they should have clear ideas on what role their video can play towards achieving that change—however small or big that change might be.


There is a counter trend as well, where more isn’t always better. Last week, I heard the director of EngageMedia, a leading social justice and environmental video organisation in the Asia-Pacific region, say: ‘I’d prefer we produce half the number of videos, but with twice the level of engagement.” 


Obtaining higher levels of engagement can be a real challenge, especially online. It helps if a social issues video ends with a concrete call to action: sign the online petition, talk to your neighbour, donate to your local food bank, join our Facebook group etc. 


Another option is building the capacity of affected communities and making sure that those most affected by an issue can continue advocating and engaging audiences themselves once a filmmaker’s time is up. 


However one goes about creating social impact through filmmaking, one thing is clear: think ahead! Before picking up a camera, filmmakers (and their teams) must strategise and come up with ideas on how their video will contribute to social change. This decisive, yet often overlooked, exercise really influences how filmmakers can be successful at creating social impact. 


The Video4Change Network, a global network of organisations using video to create social change, is aware that, for many grassroots filmmakers, designing a strong impact strategy is a challenge. Therefore, they decided to get their heads together and create the Video for Change Impact Toolkit: a resource that helps filmmakers better design for and evaluate their social impact. The Impact Toolkit is designed to be modular, so you can simply start reading, anywhere you like.


One of the key insights in it is that impact can take place at any stage of a video initiative and not only at the outreach and distribution stages. Also, filmmakers using a Video for Change approach are encouraged to co-create with affected communities. Finally, filmmakers must accept that each video impact campaign travels its own journey and that not all impacts are necessarily quick or positive.


Sometimes, video can have immediate impact, like this eyewitness report video by B’tselem of the extrajudicial killing of a Palestinian by Israeli forces. It became the talk of the day in a flash. The filmmaker was threatened and had to be transferred to a safe house. The Israeli parliament quickly introduced a draft bill, which prevented anyone from filming Israeli soldiers. Public discussions broke out on national television, reopening the discussions around the (il)legality of Israeli-occupied territories. If there’s one thing Ehab Tarabieh, B’Tselem’s video department director, learned, it is that one really needs to understand the law of the region you’re working in before using video to tackle human rights offences.


Other video initiatives take years without a clear end goal in sight. Take, for instance, those fighting for justice for the victims of the 1965-66 massacres of communists in Indonesia. The Act of Killing, a feature length documentary by Joshua Oppenheimer, was a big hit online and in the International festival circuit, reaching at least a million viewers, yet it failed to stir any immediate change within Indonesia. A recent video addressing the same issue, A Daughter’s Memory, by Indonesian filmmaker Kartika Partiwi, used a unique impact strategy. It focused on how the 1965-66 atrocities are being taught in Indonesian schools. Her short animated video helps Indonesian history teachers explain the use of oral histories as a technique for historical teaching and writing—an ingenious way of addressing the same issue, from a totally different angle, at a more feasible scale.


Still image from A Daughter’s Memory


Other times, it is not even videos, but the capacity building efforts of filmmakers that contribute most to social change. In Kashmir, a region in Northern India that recently got its internet access back after a seven month blackout, a prolonged capacity building effort to teach local journalists and community correspondents to use film, led to the foundation of Kashmir Unheard. In Papua, Eastern Indonesia, a similar effort led to the founding of Papuan Voices, a sustainable collective that recently hosted their 3rd consecutive Papuan Film Festival. Insight Share, a UK-based participatory video organisation, has seeded video collectives all over the world. Many of these groups are now independent. One of them recently set up a Pan-African Living Cultures Alliance, which claims that ‘participatory video’ is the eyes of their movement. 


Finally, creative thinking around impact production can give new life to existing videos. A classic example is the Ping Pong, Never Too Old for Gold campaign, where a documentary about the Over 80s World Table Tennis Championship successfully toured British elderly homes (ping-pong bats included!) to get thousands of elderly people in Britain moving again.


Exactly this is the message of the Video for Change Impact Toolkit: there are many pathways to create positive social change through video. Whether one chooses to ride the growing wave of online video consumption, or focuses on empowering a small group of labor activists. The key thing is making sure there’s a clear impact strategy: something that doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Start with formulating an Impact Statement or designing a capacity building effort and discover how far you want to go in placing social impact at the core of your film activities.


We look forward to hearing your story!


This blog-post was written by Egbert Wits, Project Manager at EngageMedia. Egbert loves to hear your experiences of using video as a tool for social change: [email protected]