Documentary Impact: Social Change through Storytelling

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Based on five case studies of Canadian and American documentary films, this report argued that documentaries, “coupled with a well-executed social impact strategy, can have substantial impact on social change”. However, the report also acknowledged that “social change involves good luck, good timing, traction of ideas in the broader culture and more than a little magic and zeitgeist.”

The report, while offering some case study evidence, provided fairly strong opinions about the potential impacts of documentary films, including how creative risk-taking and filmmaking artistry are key components of potential impact. In addition, the report argued that a documentary (using high-quality storytelling) can create audience empathy which can provide fuel for action. More specifically, the report maintained that a compelling story can lead to awareness, engagement, a stronger social movement, and ultimately social change (i.e., “a perceivable shift in behaviours, beliefs and values within a group, system, or community, as well as legislative or policy shifts in a government organization or institution”).

The report claimed that there are eight key elements of documentary impact:

  1. “Story is everything”.
  2. Building a strategy.
  3. Identifying key audiences.
  4. As a filmmaker, not trying to do and be everything.
  5. Working to get the story behind the film – its key issues – out there.
  6. Obtaining resources and partnerships can help to accelerate impact.
  7. Working to track impact.
  8. Recognizing that important changes in documentary form, production, and distribution (as well as the media landscape and the public’s engagement with media) are taking place.
Summary: 

Based on five case studies of Canadian and American documentary films, this report argued that documentaries, “coupled with a well-executed social impact strategy, can have substantial impact on social change”. However, the report also acknowledged that “social change involves good luck, good timing, traction of ideas in the broader culture and more than a little magic and zeitgeist.”