When Solutions Journalism Meets Documentary Filmmaking

One World Media’s Director, Gemma Bradshaw explains how we’re encouraging solutions-led storytelling in documentary filmmaking

When we first came across the idea of solutions journalism, we knew it had a part to play in bringing more nuanced stories from across the global south to the forefront. What we didn’t know was that when we teamed it with our work on international short docs, we were championing a whole new field of work.

Let’s start with the jargon. 

Solutions journalism – or stories that are solutions oriented – start by showing us people who are responding to current problems. A solution. This is not all positivity. We should see what works, what doesn’t, with evidence and context. 

Global south stories can so often be dominated by war, conflict, crime, corruption and poverty. Solutions journalism offers a way to change this narrative. In areas like health, education, climate, science and technology, sharing information and interrogating these ideas can have a tangible impact. And they can show people in their own communities trying to make a difference.

But why short docs? At One World Media we have a track record of matchmaking emerging international short doc filmmakers with global media organisations. It seemed natural that the character-driven observational style that dominates the industry could be directed towards a person with a solution rather than a problem.

However, our research found that solutions-oriented documentary is a small field, especially for filmmakers from the global south. 

If you take a look at the excellent SJN Story Tracker, you will quickly see that solutions journalism tends to be more common in print and digital media. Our research found short explainer videos, longer reporter-led videos, but few observational short documentaries.

Secondly, we found that it is more common geographically in the US and in Europe. There is increasing awareness and training in many parts of the global south. Yet there are much fewer examples in the short documentary format and no dedicated training for global south filmmakers in visual storytelling. 

If you were looking for inspiration or role models of filmmakers from your own country, they are hard to find. 

Over the past year we have started to fill this gap. The aim is to get more of these films completed and broadcast. But we had to start with the basics: what would a solutions-oriented, observational documentary look like?

If we wanted to see more solutions-oriented short docs, we would need a new way to train and encourage this approach. What made this possible was pairing solutions experts with filmmakers so that we could begin to meld their practices together.

Across five locations – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Egypt, Nigeria and the Philippines –  we developed online and in-person training curriculums relevant to each region. The teams shared their knowledge of their style of storytelling and began crafting how solutions can be the basis of engaging narrative docs. 

And we shared our top list of solutions-oriented short docs. 

“There has never before been a workshop or discussion focused on solutions journalism. It is something very new because at the university, they never talked to us about this, and neither did the media where I work. They have neither talked to us nor have we put it into practice as solutions journalism. It is great that they show us these videos because they generate ideas and [help us] question what we are doing.” 

          – Filmmaker, Colombia

Now that we had started people talking about solutions docs, we were confident to open our call for entries to the Global Short Docs Forum – Solutions edition. We wanted at least 50 percent of the films pitched to broadcast and digital outlets at the Forum to have a solutions focus.

This week, after four weeks of intensive storytelling and pitch training, our 16 filmmakers will meet media organisations and hopefully get the commission we are all looking for. There are many solutions films in the mix and we can’t wait to see what the commissioners think.

It is still early days for this genre of documentaries. There needs to be more conversations with commissioners, filmmakers and solutions journalism experts to get this type of story recognised. More masterclasses to provide inspiration and guidance.

And at the very least getting beyond the problem with language. Solutions, constructive, impact-driven media all come with their own baggage. 

Many of the conversations this past year have been about overcoming some assumptions. That this is for the campaigners, that it is too prescriptive or even too simplistic. 

But once filmmakers and commissioners understand this is about supporting them to use all their creative skills to look at a story in a different way, they are excited to see more stories of change, impact and hope.