This guest blog post is written by Gladys Llanes, an alumna of EngageMedia’s second Environmental Impact Lab in 2021. This story is a must read for anyone involved or interested in impact production in the Asia-Pacific. Professional impact production is still in its infancy in Asia, and although it can be a highly rewarding career path, it is certainly not one for the fainthearted. Gladys’ story is a personal and intimate reflection of what it’s like to become an impact producer in the Asia-Pacific in 2022.
Kids love taking photos during field shoots. My first job in the documentary industry was as a production assistant and editor for documentary filmmaker Ditsi Carolino back in 2016. This photo was taken after we shot a scene outside Quiapo Church, Manila for the short film ‘Huwag Kang Papatay (Thou Shall Not Kill)’. Photo by Ditsi Carolino, provided by the author.
“So, when are you going to quit your job?”
My mom casually asked me this on our way to the pool resort for my going away party. She’s constantly asked this since I’m barely around in my childhood hometown in Mindanao, Southern Philippines; my work demands so much of my time. That morning, a client had just called, asking my team to shoot a short documentary on domestic care issues. Creating impactful media productions is what really keeps me going, so I quickly booked a plane ticket and told my family I’m flying back to Manila – my work base for five years now – hence the pool party.
The life of an impact producer is not easy. Yes, I’m a self-proclaimed impact producer; unlike doctors or engineers, there are no official exams to take before one can use that job title. But as far as the definition of an impact producer goes, I fit the description: a person responsible for maximising the potential of media content for social change during the production process, from the start of the project up to distribution.
Over the past five years, I have dedicated my time producing content that could potentially have social impact. While documentary filmmaking is my passion in life, I also produce and run Change Magazine, a media hub for social innovators and entrepreneurs around the globe. I also co-founded Development Innovation Insider (Diinsider) in my 20s and started heading the media productions department there. Many tell me I’m doing noble work, yet somehow all these efforts still end up at my mom’s earlier question: “When are you going to quit your job?”
These are the hard realities behind this career path.
Impact production will not make you a ‘gazillionaire’
One of the reasons why I jumped on a plane back to Manila after that client call was because producers like me can’t just hand-pick work. Often, we live paycheck to paycheck from development agencies and international nongovernment organisations. Most of the documentary filmmakers I know need to work on short-term projects to stay afloat, and that includes me and my team.
Shoreline at last. In this photo, I’m speaking with Tatay Pete, a fisherman in Casiguran, Aurora after we finished filming him in the middle of the sea. We started our journey at 4am and ended around 7am with enough fish for our breakfast. Photo by TJ Biasong, provided by the author.
Personally, I love working with organisations doing social good. They have become our link to the on-the-ground impact happening for people and communities. My goal as an impact producer is to make the contributions of these organisations ripple even further out by producing content that hopefully touches audiences’ hearts, followed by a campaign distribution strategy to ensure target audiences are aware of the issue and are motivated to take action.
As ideal and fulfilling as this work is, I have encountered several challenges. Project timelines often overlap. The organisations I work with sometimes have limited budgets, yet I have a team to feed and a company to keep afloat. When I started out, I did pro bono work to build my portfolio. I’d sometimes call my mom to mope about the stress I’m going through, which was one of the reasons why she wanted me to quit.
Funding is also an ongoing challenge. I recently read that the future of documentary filmmaking is bright, but still a high-risk endeavour commercially. Streaming companies love documentaries, but the monetary risks attached to the production (like waiting years for a finished film) is like a big red flag waving at commercial funders. So, as producers, we rely on grants most of the time.
But over time, the situation got better. I learned how to deal with clients and even create organic opportunities for the business. Reading books, listening to motivational speakers, and joining peer conversations helped me get through the nitty gritty work of business development. I eventually balanced the business side with my impact goals. The pro bono work really did pay off in the end.
Ultimately, if you want to become an impact producer, you need to think like an entrepreneur. But don’t get your hopes up that you will become a business mogul. Embracing a sustainable life best suits this career path.
This career is not for the fainthearted
Another thing to consider while embarking on an impact producing career is the many risks along the way.
Right now, my team and I are producing our first feature documentary film, Bantay Bukid (Forest Guards). Because the film is set deep inside the forests of Mt. Apo in Davao City, we got insurance for the team and our equipment. Having insurance might be par for the course for filmmakers in the West, but it’s not easily put into practice by filmmakers in the Asia-Pacific, especially those with low budgets.
Even with insurance in place, the work is simply dangerous. Every time we ride motorcycles to cross rocky mountains, or trek slippery slopes for our shoot, we are constantly praying to be able to get on with it safely.
Bantay Bukid (Forest Guards) director Pia Duran and I ride a motorcycle going to the jump-off point in Brgy. Sirib, Davao City. After the ride, we hike to the deep forest to film some forest guarding scenes. Photo by Nana Buxani, provided by the author.
Aside from the obvious physical dangers, there is also another looming threat: intimidation from the antagonist of the story or from someone who might find the film material damning.
I have been fortunate not to have personally experienced this, but I have read and heard reports from friends and the news. For instance, a content creator friend in Myanmar who made online videos to help Burmese youth get scholarship opportunities is now in hiding for speaking out about the military coup. These threats are also present in the Philippines, which has been ranked among the top 10 deadliest countries for journalists.
But of course, risks can be mitigated. Not all impact productions and campaigns need to be risky. But in cases where these scenarios are inevitable, having the right network and support system will be a big help. The Safe+Secure handbook by Doc Society is the perfect bible for impact producers and filmmakers. Sections 4 and 5 of the handbook are especially helpful for understanding risk management, both for the filmmakers and the film’s subject.
You need to be a jack of all trades
To succeed as an impact producer, you have to be versatile.
Because of budget constraints and working environments where sometimes only a few people are needed on site, you might have to take on additional roles. I have probably experienced every single aspect of film production, from script writing and directing, to working the camera, audio, and even editing (which I actually love and is how I started my career). Right now, I’m currently the producer for Bantay Bukid, but I am also doing the audio work.
Recording the ambience. So far, I am enjoying the audio work which has given me a new perspective and appreciation for this art. Photo by Pia Duran, provided by the author.
As an impact producer, it’s not enough to just know the creative aspect of film production. You need to know the issues by heart as well, and reading alone won’t suffice. You must talk and listen to people, especially to the affected communities and the film’s subjects. This way, your understanding deepens and the communities’ interests can be integrated in the impact strategy design.
Better ways forward for impact production
Despite all the hurdles in my job as an impact producer, telling my mom that I am definitely not quitting feels right. Problems exist in any job, so why not face them in the job you’re most passionate about?
I’m a big believer in solutions, especially now that I’m seeing the environment around this industry evolving. I think these changes would open more possibilities in creating a stable industry that young people may be encouraged to follow.
From my observations, these practices are making a difference in the industry:
1. One-on-one mentorship works like magic: Some veteran filmmakers and impact producers are now reaching out to young, idealistic rookies like me to help us get through the rough path – and I can’t be grateful enough. There is just a different kind of magic if you have a mentor who invests their time in seeing you grow. Their guidance is worth much more than any class or book, since they could contextualise their advice based on their experiences and your situation. I do hope that many will be encouraged to share their wisdom through mentorship. That is impactful work itself.
2. The power of a strong community: Having safe spaces to learn and grow is important. I had the chance to participate in the Video for Change Environmental Impact Lab by EngageMedia last year, and it boosted my knowledge and conviction that I’m on the right path. I learned more about impact creation and immediately practiced it while working on Bantay Bukid. Aside from filming our subjects, we will also be conducting filming workshops with the forest guards as we know this skill will be helpful in their work.
At the second Video for Change Environmental Impact Lab, we found our tribe of impact producers in this workshop.
When we participated in the Indonesia-based international lab Docs by the Sea in 2020, we met some filmmakers around Southeast Asia who became our friends and confidants. More importantly, some of the workshop mentors still keep in touch, giving us constant encouragement.
Mentorship time. Journalist Jane Mote gives the Bantay Bukid (Forest Guards) team advice during the one-on-one mentorship session in Docs by the Sea 2020. Teddy the Cat also gave us some advice. Photo by Bantay Bukid film crew
3. Opening up more opportunities: With the creative industry booming and impact producing on the radar, many organisations are opening up grant opportunities for social impact content. Foundations that do impact work are also seeing the potential of media products as a way of creating impact, and are offering opportunities to independent filmmakers.
As a rookie producer, being part of these communities and seeing these developments makes me hopeful for my own career and highly curious as to how it will evolve.
Now more than ever, I believe it is important to create positive impact. As a creative, contributing to social impact through media production is the way forward. I cannot close my eyes and continue to live while denying that society needs fixing. I have to do something using my skills. And to be able to stand on my own feet, I need guidance and collaboration with fellow impact producers, peers, and colleagues in the industry. After all, someday it will surely be my time to pay it forward for the next rookie who will continue down this challenging but fulfilling path.
About the Author
Gladys Llanes is an impact producer and documentary filmmaker based in the Philippines. She produces documentary films and short digital videos across Asia-Pacific that focus on social impact. Listening to stories on the ground while sipping native coffee is her favourite pastime. Currently, Gladys is the full-time head of media production at Diinsider.