Documentary film for the Third Sector

At Reelmedia Film, we’re passionate about using documentary film for change. Here, we dig into its use as a communications medium for the Third Sector.

Advocacy through filmmaking

Thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the documentary format is arguably more popular than ever. Particularly over this last year of lockdown, people have the appetite for engaging stories that they can sink their teeth into, and even better if the story has a tangible cause to get behind.

The widespread popularity of Netflix’s latest investigative documentary, Seaspiracy, is a perfect example of how powerful a tool documentary can be to advocacy efforts. For NGOs working in international development, commissioning documentary films can be a great way of growing awareness around an issue, allowing audiences to dive into the detail and get to know the people behind the statistics.

Ethical storytelling

For many filmmakers, accessing engaging stories that will hold an audience’s attention is half the battle in creating a documentary that will have widespread appeal. For Third Sector organisations that work in some of the world’s most intense and extreme environments, these stories are right at their fingertips. Although the stories may be readily available, there are many ethical considerations to make when producing documentary films for NGOs. Here are some points to consider:

  • Do your research – understanding the cultural/political context of a story is critical to avoid misrepresentation.
  • Present characters as authentically as possible, in a format that inspires empathy rather than sympathy.
  • Instead of presenting people as victims, telling stories that show individuals as empowered, with the agency to bring about change in their lives avoids creating an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario.
  • Don’t be intrusive, give people the time and space to warm up to being in front of the camera, especially when people are sharing traumatic experiences.
  • Listen to people and allow them to tell their stories in their own words

Making an impact

When creating documentaries for the Third Sector it can often be tempting to jump to the most harrowing story. Yet, for an audience, it’s not always the most tear-jerking narratives that grab their attention. Humans are a relatively homogenous group, and most of us strive to fulfil the same basic needs in life, wherever we’re from. Audiences like to see themselves in stories, so finding these points of universal relatability is critical to building a connection between the issue and the individual, and is ultimately what generates impact.

No matter how good the narrative, a film can’t make an impact if nobody sees it. Despite having excellent access to stories, often, NGO documentaries can fall flat in the distribution phase. Thinking about who’s going to see the documentary and via what medium is critical to increasing a film’s impact. In all of our documentary projects, we think about the distribution plan from the outset. For example, when producing Until the last drop, our documentary for Oxfam on farming in the West Bank, we knew that the documentary was aiming for a festival release. Knowing the distribution objectives informed our approach to conceptualising the entire film, and the documentary ended up collecting multiple awards and festival screenings.

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