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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