BBC Culture

The Reel World

Activist documentaries: Preaching to the converted?

About the author

Tom Brook is a New York-based journalist who has reported on film and the movie industry for BBC News since 1985. He has presented Talking Movies on BBC World News since 1999.

Virunga (Michele Sibilonia)

Virunga (Michele Sibilonia)

The Tribeca Film Festival lineup is full of activist documentaries that make the case for social change. Tom Brook asks: do these movies have any real impact?

Whether it’s a film called Virunga investigating the alleged wrongdoing of a British oil and gas exploration company in Africa’s oldest national park or the movie Silenced, which provides a defense of whistleblowers, this year’s Tribeca Film Festival has a strong lineup of activist documentaries, films trying to spotlight an issue, influence people and have an impact on public policy.

Genna Terranova, Director of Programming at the festival, sees these documentaries as effective tools to raise awareness – especially when an audience responds positively after a screening.  “In the age of social media that’s where the conversation starts and that’s when hopefully change will start,” says Terranova.

The prevalence of activist documentaries may be quite noticeable at film festivals like Tribeca, but they are not new. They feature prominently in lists of award-winning cinema from Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 – an incendiary 2004 critique of President George W Bush’s War on Terror – to former US Vice President Al Gore’s 2006 Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, which is credited with playing a major role in raising awareness of global warming.

An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Vantage)

An Inconvenient Truth (Paramount Vantage)

For an activist documentary to be compelling, audiences have certain expectations. For British actor Sir Patrick Stewart, who has been involved in a number of social causes, there is one vital ingredient: “Passion. You’ve got to have something to say,” he says. “Documentaries that simply document leave me a little cold. I love it when a filmmaker has a point of view and wants to express that point of view.”

It is hardly surprising then to find that Sir Patrick is a fan of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

“He dared to give offence and to upset people. Film is not meant to stroke you,” he says.

But those very qualities he admires may render a campaigning documentary ineffective when it comes to changing opinion, because a strident, impassioned approach may alienate and polarise audiences.

Seeing reason

“I think the best films, in terms of the films that are poised to make change, are not inflammatory, personally,” says Caitlin Boyle, president of Film Sprout which specialises in the grassroots distribution of documentaries.  “When I’m looking to distribute films and when I’m looking to represent films and working with filmmakers, I’m looking for films that are nuanced, that are thoughtful, that are well-researched, that are investigative. I’m less interested in sort of propaganda pieces.”

Filmmaker Sam Cullman, whose credits include co-directing the 2011 documentary If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which looks at a radical environmental group, has changed the way he wants to bring about social change through his movies. He doesn’t really want to approach his work as an activist filmmaker.

“I think a film you might traditionally call ‘activist’ could marginalise itself,” says Cullman, “because people are bombarded by all this stuff already. I think for me the more effective way to do it is to really tell human stories… because nobody wants to be preached to.”

And when it comes to preaching, one major challenge facing activist documentaries is to make sure they don’t just preach to the converted.

It’s fairly safe to assume that the majority of filmmakers at Tribeca this year who’ve made activist documentaries are left-leaning. It’s also true that the festival audience – as well as those who see the documentaries in arthouse cinemas once they get a distribution deal – will be politically liberal. Many filmmakers believe there’s an urgent need to reach across the aisle if they’re to foment social change.

Such an effort was made with the 2012 documentary The Invisible War, which chronicled allegations of sexual assault in the US military. Caitlin Boyle at Film Sprout ran the film's campus, military and community screening campaign. Her edict was: “Let’s make sure it’s on military bases, let’s make sure it’s in the towns that are near military bases, let’s make sure it’s there in rural areas, in red states.”

Despite all the passion that goes into a campaigning documentary it is often a narrative feature that has more impact. In recent years there have been several US documentaries that have explored the fight for marriage equality. They have found an audience – but very few may have had the impact of the award-winning 2010 feature film The Kids Are All Right, which had Annette Bening and Julianne Moore playing a lesbian couple. Mark Ruffalo, who also starred in the film, is a big supporter of campaigning documentaries but to him there is no denying the potency of The Kids Are All Right.

The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features)

The Kids Are All Right (Focus Features)

“Marriage equality has been a big debate,” says Ruffalo. “[The Kids Are All Right] came out at a time when it was at its apex in a lot of ways. What the movie did was, it took it from a personal point of view. It transcended the politics. It was an apolitical movie – but it had a profound cultural effect.”

In a perfect world it would be useful to know precisely how much a feature film or documentary affects the public’s perception of an issue. With non-fiction films there have been attempts to measure the impact. “Some of them are very quantitative,” Boyle says. “How many people saw the film? How many people saw it in community settings? But then there are more qualitative questions – was there attitudinal change?”

Hearts and minds

Specific measurements are taken for the Britdoc Foundation’s Puma Impact Award, which is handed out to those films that have made “the greatest positive impact on society or the environment.” The most recent prize went to the Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, which was an ingenious attempt to get inside the minds of the leaders of anti-Communist death squads in Indonesia in the 1960s.

The Act of Killing (Drafthouse Films)

The Act of Killing (Drafthouse Films)

Nominees for the Puma Impact Awards are studied systematically. Among the factors examined are a documentary’s presence at film festivals, community screenings, in cinemas, on television and online in promotional efforts. With The Act of Killing, research was also carried out on the ground in Indonesia. In summary it was concluded that the documentary was “in a few short months changing Indonesians’ understanding of their recent history”.

Increasingly a campaigning documentary is seen as just one weapon in a wider battle to bring about a policy change. The Invisible War didn’t just rely on screenings. There was direct lobbying. “The filmmakers worked very closely with a team that worked to engage members of Congress,” says Caitlin Boyle.

With cheaper technology making it easier to get documentaries made and new online distribution platforms emerging, it’s safe to say that campaigning films aren’t going to go away. In fact it’s easier to get funding for an activist documentary – as opposed to one that doesn’t deal with a social issue – because a lot of money comes from foundations committed to supporting only filmmaking that is trying to make a change.

There’s no doubt that the activist documentary can educate, rally the troops and lead to change. But the perception remains that it is still primarily a tool of political progressives. In recent times, in the US at any rate, conservatives have begun to make campaigning documentaries also. But they still lag far behind the liberal left.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.