Character-led storytelling

Putting people first: creating emotional connections in films for Development

NGO films are tasked with communicating complex development issues in a short space of time, in a format that will produce high audience engagement rates. When creating films for development, the challenge is in finding the balance between representing an issue authentically, whilst simultaneously creating a film that will grab the attention of your audience. The resounding consensus is that stories, specifically people-centred narratives, is what ultimately connect with people and move an audience to action. In this article we discuss the art of storytelling and how we can successfully apply the principles to create engaging films for development causes.

Telling stories is intrinsic to the human psyche, they give us information to help us to understand the world around us and our place within it. John Yorke, acclaimed screen writer and author of ‘Into the Woods’ theorises that ‘storytelling is an indispensable human preoccupation’, it is a good story that will resonate with people, therefore when creating films for development, crafting great stories around issues should be a primary focus.

Yorke proposes that every story, whether it’s being told in a theatre play, a novel, a documentary, a Hollywood film or even a reality television programme follows the same basic three act structure: a journey into the unknown (act one) to discover a truth (act two) which will allow us to comprehend something outside of ourselves (act three). Another way of understanding this structure is simply by the idea that every story tells the process of change from ignorance to knowledge. Capturing positive stories of change is predominately what development films seek to achieve; whether it’s the change in a character, a community or an environment, this three act structure can be applied universally.

‘The journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within’

— John Yorke

Powerful personal narratives

As well as considering structure, the power of a personal story should not be overlooked as a method to connect an audience with an issue. Organisations are often attempting to engage and unite wide audiences on issues that have the potential to be polarizing. Issues that polarize people can often stunt progression of solutions, as people become bogged down in ideology rather than engaging with practical solutions to the problem. NGO films seek to cut through this discourse in order to facilitate solutions, one way of doing so is by crafting character-led narratives. For example, not everyone is in agreement on the causation of climate change, however, a personal story of a family dealing with the devastating effects of drought has the ability to transcend the arguments for and against and connect with people through shared emotion. Ultimately, it is the generating of empathy which will resonate with an audience and move them to action.

‘People identify with heroes, living through them, participating in their journeys’

— Jon Fitzgerald

Accountability to communities

Alongside the ability of character-led stories to produce an empathic response in audiences, they also offer opportunities for a collaborative approach to the film production, giving contributors the voice and the agency to tell their stories. As filmmakers, an awareness of the balance of power between ourselves and our contributors is vital to make certain that we create horizontal power positions. By doing so we can ensure that we retain integrity to our subjects narratives throughout the film production process, as well as open lines of communication.

By approaching filmmaking for development with a people centred focus, alongside a solid understanding of the art of storytelling, organisations can create films that will stand up to the competition to achieve their aims and accelerate action.

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The stories we tell

The stories we tell

As filmmakers it is our craft and our passion to tell stories. Storytelling can be used as a powerful expression of experience that reconciles differences and orchestrates conversation and change, however, it can also be mis-used and present false realities which can cause harm to people and situations. There is a constant conflict of power in storytelling, as with every story that gets heard, other untold stories remain hidden or suppressed. Often it is these hidden stories that films for development are concerned with telling. Here we speak further on the politics of storytelling and the responsibility that we as filmmakers must acknowledge when creating films that tell the important stories of others.

Storytelling is an essential way of keeping a sense of agency when we are confronted with disempowering situations; it gives us a voice. When we transform events or experiences into stories, we restructure reality into narratives that give us a sense of power that we have some control over the events that befall us in life. In the case of making films on development and humanitarian subjects, the concept of giving people the ability to feel powerful is extremely important given the crisis situations that are the topic for many development films. Often the only action available in such situations is to tell the story of what is happening with the hope that bringing awareness will facilitate a physical action towards positive change. For example, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing tells the previously untold story of the genocide in Indonesia in during the 1950’s and 60’s. As a result of the story being told and heard by so many, the genocide is now being investigated to bring some justice to the victims of the atrocities committed.

‘Storytelling is a vital human strategy for sustaining a sense of agency in the face of disempowering circumstances’

— Michael Jackson

Stories shape the world around us

Stories hold immense power over the way we view the world, in particular the way we view ‘otherness’; situations and people outside of our usual spheres. When making films for development we’re tasked with communicating the stories of ‘others’, often to an audience whose lives and experiences are in stark contrast to those whose story we’re telling. The story told will either confirm that ‘others’ do not relate to our realities and validate prejudices, or it will break down these boundaries that keep us divided between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Our aim when making films for development is to bridge the divide by telling stories in a way that connects people emotionally and supports the positive progression of ideas that will motivate change.

‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’

— Joan Didion

Everyone can be a storyteller

The effect that a story has on the way we view a person, a community or a situation is greatly affected by who is telling the story and how it is being told. When making films for development we want to allow the people whose experiences have formed the story to be a storyteller themselves. For example, in our practice we don’t speak about or for people, we simply facilitate them being able to speak for themselves. In our short film series we made with UNICEF Burkina Faso, all of the films are narrated by the contributors themselves. Alongside supporting the authentic representation of characters, hearing people speak about their experiences in their own words serves as an effective method to connect the audience to the issue being presented.

When used effectively, storytelling through film can motivate real and lasting change in the world by engaging with people on issues that matter.

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