Making A Difference Through Documentaries

Human Rights Arts & Film Festival (HRAFF) Director Ella McNeill spoke with patron and filmmaker Ian Darling about the role of film in social justice, his work at GoodPitch2 Australia and the increasingly difficult job of measuring the impact of film.

Ian Darling

Ian Darling

An accomplished member of the Australian film industry, Ian Darling now sits alongside the likes of Michael Kirby, Margaret Pomeranz, Isabel Lucas and Robert Connolly as an HRAFF Patron. Over the course of his career Ian has won numerous awards for his documentaries (Paul Kelly – Stories of Me, The Oasis) and has played an active role in discussions on social impact filmmaking. His latest venture GoodPitch2 Australia continues on in this direction.

GoodPitch2 Australia brings together documentary filmmakers with foundations, NGOs, campaigners, philanthropists, policy makers, brands and media around leading social and environmental issues – to forge coalitions and campaigns that are good for all these partners, good for the films and good for society. GoodPitch2 Australia will be held in Sydney this October.

How do you measure the social impact of film? Is there a formula, or is it more abstract?
There are different metrics applied to assessing the social impact of a film and in each case the measurement of social impact is benchmarked against the purpose and design of the film and its associated campaign. What did the film set out to do? Who or what did it seek to influence? Has the film and its associated campaign achieved this? These metrics mean looking way beyond audience statistics or box office revenues, and assessing whether the targeted group have viewed the film and what this has influenced them to do. The results could be measured in terms of shift in policy or legislation, change in consciousness and behaviour, inclusion in curriculum or professional training programs, increase in resources directed towards NGOs working in the field. The context and scale of the impact are also important considerations – in some cases the film may set out to save the local chess program (as in the case of the Good Pitch film Brooklyn Castle), in others the ambition may be shift global policy.

What has been the most satisfying thing for you as a partner of GoodPitch2 Australia?
We have been impressed by the power of documentary film to galvanise powerful coalitions across a range of spheres – philanthropy, not-for-profits, film industry, policy-makers, educators and corporate foundations – to build lasting and measurable impact. The model proves that we are so much more powerful when we act collaboratively, combining our vast networks, intellectual and financial resources. The model also demonstrates the power of story-telling to cut through cynicism and apathy and inspire people to act.

Do you think filmmakers are taken seriously in the political arena? Have you seen films lead to legislative change in the past?
There are a number of examples of where films have played a central place in influencing policy and legislative change – both locally and abroad. Certainly, the ambition with our own films and outreach campaigns, including The Oasis – Australia’s Homeless Youth, were to shift the policy space and consciousness towards action on youth homelessness, and were an important component of the campaign to which the then Federal Government responded with their comprehensive ‘white paper’. Overseas, so many Good Pitch documentaries have made a profound impact – for example Bully and The Invisible War have both influenced a change in legislation in the United States when the President and Defense Secretary engaged with the films and their message. On a local policy scale, The Interrupters lead to a significant shift in resources towards NGOs working towards quelling rising levels of community violence in Chicago.

Have you ever seen social impact films influence events for the worse?
As documentary filmmakers we are always aware of our responsibility to tell an important story, but also to manage and support those who tell their story, especially when they are vulnerable. At Shark Island Productions, we took great care to support those who were brave enough to tell their story in our documentary films including homeless youth in The Oasis and youth in prison for Stories from the Inside.

For The Oasis, we took the view that the system had already done so much damage, that it was our duty of care to ensure that the homeless kids were not damaged further by participating in the film. In the case of Stories from the Inside, it was important to tell the stories of young prisoners without causing further harm to the victims of their crimes. In this case, we had to make difficult decisions between inclusion and exclusion of footage. Our sense of duty of care is why we have continued for support our subjects either directly or through programs that support them.

Filmmaking equipment has become much more accessible, how has this changed the landscape for social impact filmmaking?
Social impact filmmaking will always depend on the filmmakers power to tell a compelling story, often with a strong character-driven narrative. This said, the emergence of new and less expensive equipment and technologies has certainly changed the mechanism for recording, editing and delivering important stories. Mobile technology has been used to powerful effect in films such as No Fire Zone and The Green Wave – giving us first-hand evidence and access to the realities of war zones. Behind this footage, however, is a well honed craft for reaching the audience and engaging them in the stories of those on screen.

Do you think social impact filmmakers could take inspiration from successful advertising campaigns or is this too far removed from the point? If advertising’s role is to change people’s minds about a product/issue/person, then perhaps social impact filmmakers have something to learn from their approach?
Many social impact filmmakers actually make a living from working in advertising. Ultimately they are storytellers. However, we believe it is really important to get away from the bite size headline grabbing nature of media (whether it be advertising or YouTube) if we are to make a lasting impact. I think feature length documentaries still are the best way of dealing with complex issues and delivering informed messages that influence behaviour and change hearts and minds for the long term.

Can you give us the names of three filmmakers to watch over the next few years?
Watch everything that Kirby Dick makes. His last film was Invisible War, and he is currently directing a documentary on the incidence of sexual assaults on university campuses across the US. I think Davis Guggenheim  (Waiting for Superman and Inconvenient Truth) is still one of the best essay based filmmakers around, who understands all about how to make impact, and I’m always eager to see his new stuff. Locally Rebecca Barry and her team are doing amazing things in this exciting space.

HRAFF Festival Director Ella McNeill

Ian Darling will present a free masterclass on social impact documentaries during HRAFF in the Make An Impact! on Sat 10 May at 2pm.

The Human Rights Arts & Film Festival runs from Thu 8 May – Thu 22 May, 2014 at ACMI. For more information and tickets, visit

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