At the first Video for Change Environmental Impact Lab, filmmakers and video initiatives learn from three mentors how their films can better create impact. The mentors share their experiences in the video, What is Impact Production?, highlighting the value that impact producers bring to the film production process.
In the process of the Impact Lab, inspiring conversations were had between EngageMedia, the mentors, and the Lab participants. To supplement the video, we publish here an interview between EngageMedia Learning Manager Egbert Wits and Impact Lab mentor Lina Srivastava, Impact Strategist and founder of the Center for Transformational Change Leadership.
Egbert: Hi, Lina, thank you for joining today. As an impact strategist, could you share what, in your opinion, are some of the things anyone involved in impact production for a documentary film should always safeguard? And, a few principles to hang on to when you’re designing impact campaigns for films aiming to contribute to social change whilst involving affected communities in it.
Lina: I love this question because it is often really easy to lose control of the values of an impact campaign because there are so many competing interests on a particular documentary film production.
So, number one: You want to safeguard the core values and the mission of the campaign. Make sure that the original goals of the campaign – conceived together with the team and the affected community, and when you formulated your impact statement at the start – represent a clear understanding of what it is that the affected community and the film team want to change. Make sure you’re always checking that your original goal is still relevant to the current context, [to] the political situation, and to the community that you’re working with.
Number two: Always safeguard your impact campaign budget. There will always be instances – and some of them are understandable – where money set aside for impact campaigns is put into production or post-production. So, make sure you’re safeguarding your impact campaign budgets and fighting for them.
And the third thing: Safeguard your relationship with the stakeholders within the affected community because that is the lifeblood of a campaign. If you don’t get that right, or if that is left unprotected, your campaign can erode very fast.
Egbert: Agreed. Can you explain what you mean when you say that your campaign can erode fast? Do you mean the community will stop supporting it?
Lina: They might stop supporting it. You might create a campaign that ultimately is not relevant to or respectful of the community, even if you’re trying to do that. And, going back to my first point, if you’re not protecting the mission, then what you ultimately produce might be a marketing campaign, or it might be something that doesn’t help the community. It might even harm the community. So that’s why you always need to make sure that you are centring the community and, as much as possible, are listening to their lead, with the understanding that you have your own expertise that they don’t have and that the film team doesn’t have, as well. But, make sure that you are constantly preserving those relationships.
Egbert: Which basically means there’s constant communication with them? To screen rough-cuts inside the community for example, would that be a form of the checks and balances that you have in mind there? By screening key sections or discussing the important narratives of your film, you can get the community’s feedback. Then, you incorporate this feedback in what you’re creating, and continue on like that, correct?
Lina: Yeah. And make sure that you also understand and manage the shifting political, social, or cultural context and circumstances that they’re living in – and also the one the film team itself is living in. They’re going to be dealing with the same things as you.
It’s about making sure that you are in communication, that you’re keeping yourself aware of any new information, any new insights that are coming up. It’s beautiful, actually. It’s a constant learning opportunity. But you have to keep working on it. It’s never done. This work is never static, is what I’m trying to say.
Egbert: Okay, that’s clear. Now, as with most things in life, you get better at it by doing it a lot. But do you have any tips, any books or articles, or must watch films that will help you to understand and master impact production better?
Lina: The number one plug is the Video for Change Impact Toolkit. I just went back and revisited that, and it’s a fantastic resource. So, make sure that you’re studying it and that you’re using it as much as possible.
If you can – and this is really crucial – be in dialogue with other people who are doing this work, because there are new learnings, new opportunities, and innovations all the time. If you’re a black or brown woman, or a trans person or gender nonconforming or nonbinary, you can join the Brown Girls Doc Mafia, which is a community of close to 5,000 people around the world doing work in socially relevant media. Some of them are impact strategists.
This is all just to say: Join a community of practice, if you can. And of course, read. There’s the Doc Society Impact Field Guide. There are also older articles that have come out. There’s Jennifer McArthur, who started this all off when writing about impact production back in 2013. There’s Alex Kelly’s work in Australia. Recently, Caty Borum Chattoo came out with the book Story Movements. There’s more, but to be honest, there’s not enough.
Egbert: Something I’d like to share from my experience is that I’ve emailed various people in the impact production field that I had never met before, and in my experience, they always replied when I made it clear what my question was. Just be sincere and honest in what you’re doing and what you would like to discuss, and I’m pretty sure you’ll get a reply. That culture of helping each other out really exists within this field. Would you agree with that, Lina?
Lina: Absolutely. I think most of the people who are doing this work are supportive and extremely open. We all understand that this kind of work, this community building, community-led supporting work that uses cultural assets, is a collective effort. And so you have to be in dialogue. You have to be responsive. It’s a core principle.
Egbert: That’s great to hear. Another question I have is about the budget. I think, for most of us who are working with small form social documentaries, it’s safe to say we don’t have big budgets. You already urged us to fight for an impact campaign budget. But, even then, you’re still likely to end up having to work with small budgets and having to make choices. For example, do we invite 20 community members to visit another community and discuss the film? Or, do we host additional screenings in big cities? Or, do we facilitate a capacity-building effort in media literacy for younger community members? Oftentimes, we simply can’t do all of the things we want. So what could be some of the big wins if you have a limited budget, but still want to maximise your film’s impact?
Lina: If there’s a marketing budget, use that money for your impact campaign. Having said that, a lot of documentaries and short films done by nonprofits don’t have marketing budgets.
Another one is to always set aside a little bit of money for discretionary use. I’ve been in projects where, after we’re already in full swing implementing the campaign, we’ll get asked something that never rose to our attention during the strategic planning. These are things you didn’t even know had a relation to your film, because it’s embedded within a different issue, or coming from a different region. And then people will say: “Oh, we really like to use this, how can we do this?”. And there’s real applicability to what they’re trying to do with your film. So, if possible, set aside some discretionary funds so you are able to respond to unpredictable things happening along the way.
Another win is to advocate for a separate budget line. I mean, you definitely need a separate budget line for impact and community-facing work. And, also important, always make sure that you get paid. There’s not a lot of money here, and often, there is a feeling from communities, or filmmakers, or from people who are external stakeholders, that this is all voluntary work. Time and again it’s even explicitly stated, it has literally been stated to me: “Why aren’t you doing this for free?”.
Make sure people realise that this is work, valuable work. It’s professional and much needed. So, make sure you get paid. As much as we all want to take down capitalism, we need to think about the use of budgets in ways that are more mutual and in terms of exchange. So, make sure you value your own work and fight for that.
Egbert: That’s so true, and good advice. Within EngageMedia, we have a golden rule that you should spend at least as much time making something as you do for its outreach and engagement. So if you spend, say, two days writing a blog post, or a story, then you should spend at least two days reaching out and getting people to actually read and reflect on the story. Because why else would you have written it in the first place? I think that counts for films as well. If you spend so much time making a film you should be making really sure that the right people see it, enough people see it. That is just so important.
Lina: I think it’s really important to make sure that impact is woven through the entire production process. This is something that the Video for Change Impact Toolkit has set up. So when you’re thinking about outreach, and impact and community engagement, and, you know, ultimately measuring and evaluating the change that was made, all that has to start as soon as possible. It’s not something to do after the fact. I think that people are currently moving away from this a little bit. Again and again, the impact is put on the filmmaker’s shoulders. And, you know, after you’ve made a film, it’s exhausting. You spent five years making a film, and then you spent two or three years of your life travelling and speaking about the film. It’s really exhausting.
Having somebody there who’s a professional, who can direct that engagement work or perhaps even take on that work – my theory is that this stuff is best left for advocates, activists, and even NGOs. Because you’re right, it’s hard to make something and then say, OK, now I have to push it out. They’re very different skills, but they’re both really necessary because if nobody sees your film, it’s hard for it to make an impact.
Egbert: Yes, definitely. Too often what happens after a film is made is treated as an afterthought. It’s like, well, now that the film is done, what are we going to do with this film? It frequently happens within campaigns or demonstrations that have longer time spans, where there is time to document and showcase this footage along the way. Too often, people involved in the campaign will just start documenting. Later they’ll have a bunch of documentation, but little idea about why they were documenting it all in the first place. If you start thinking about questions like, “Who is supposed to see what footage for which reasons after you’ve collected the footage?”, it’s too late. There’s actually a discussion about building effective video archives on the Video4Change Forum at the moment.
So, I completely agree with you. There is always the need for someone taking on that strategic role of thinking about the impacts media are supposed to have and how we’re going to get there.
Lina: Yeah. And it’s an essential role. So I think it’s a job that needs to be deeply valued.