Join us for Episode 1 of looking into the bigger impact of the stories we tell. This week, Molly Murphy of Working Films, and Sherry Simpson Dean of ITVS, dive into how their work engages communities.
Greetings, and welcome to the first edition of Story Power, Field Notes’ first column about impact campaigns. Once a month, join us for conversations with people who are growing our understanding of how documentary films can influence society. We’ll be speaking with filmmakers, impact producers, film participants—also referred to as subjects or characters—and community organizations. In the spirit of beginnings, our first column will examine what an impact campaign actually is.
I had the opportunity to speak with Molly Murphy and Sherry Simpson Dean, of the Documentary Accountability Working Group (DAWG). Simpson is the Senior Director of Engagement and Impact Innovation for Independent Television Service (ITVS). Her work is truly innovative—seeking out new ways to engage with filmmakers as well as the communities and people depicted in their films. Meanwhile, Molly Murphy is the Director of Partnerships and Innovation at Working Films, and one of five of the organization’s executive directors. Her involvement with the field is vast and profound—engaging with filmmakers, community organizations, NGOs as well as the programming of Working Films for the last 21 years.
There’s a great deal to consider when trying to understand what an impact campaign actually is. Stories are a very human thing—something we have been using forever to excite and engage one another. By its nature, a good story will have an effect on people no matter what.
“There's a pull to contextualize [impact producing] as a field,” Simpson told me. “The reality is that no matter what we're doing, we're impacting people.” Impact can be achieved in a variety of ways, both through a years-long campaign to influence national policy as well as within the more traditional walls of a theater. To begin this journey, though—and regardless of how you hope to effect change with your film—it’s important to start with self-reflection.
Documentary filmmakers are caring people. Most of us work in this medium because we see it as a powerful way to change our society for the better. Along with the power of the story, however, comes the commensurate responsibility of the storyteller. As Simpson pointed out in our conversation, if you set out to change the world, it’s important to first ask, “whose world?”
In the initial stages of developing an impact campaign—ideally at the beginning of a film project—you have to think deeply about the ramifications your film might have. Despite the best of intentions, a film’s impact might not always be a good one. As Murphy explained, “where accountability comes in is being willing to solicit and to accept what that impact is on those who are featured in or who have lived experience with the issues at the center of the story.” It’s important to engage with the people who will be depicted in a film, when thinking about an impact campaign.
Reflecting on a project with others—especially the people depicted in the film—is vital. As Murphy reflected, “If change—and change can take many different forms—is your goal, that's not a road you can take alone as a filmmaker.” It’s always necessary to also solicit the expertise and fresh perspectives of fellow creatives: editors, cinematographers, producers, and the like. If you want to organize an impact campaign, however, it’s not as simple as employing a community member or film participant. “You need to be able to get partners on board,” Murphy said. “But you also have to be flexible to those who have the lived experience and are doing the work.” Further, informed consent is essential to the working relationship with anyone featured in a documentary film.
As an example, Simpson cited a project she’s currently working on at ITVS called “Bridge Builders.” This series of shorts features formerly incarcerated individuals working to change the system that harmed them. The film team began the process by gathering the film participants—as well as those who would be working behind the camera—and engaged in thoughtful conversation. Led by Dr. Kameelah Rashad, another member of DAWG, the goal was to inform the participants of what they might expect in terms of engagement and to understand how film participants wanted to use the project to further their own work.
It wasn’t just a matter of giving the film participants control of the project, however. “It's not like they’re just driving it,” Simpson said. “But, what we can do is support communities in building stakeholder relationships so that others can carry on the work.” Together with community stakeholders, you can increase the potential impact of a film and build on the work they have already done.
All of the participants in the “Bridge Builders” series have taken it upon themselves to help others impacted by the criminal justice system, and the project’s impact campaign is built around the work that those people are already doing. For example, Haki Sekou, a community health worker at the Formerly Incarcerated Transitions Clinic in New Orleans, LA, is working to empower and educate fellow formerly incarcerated individuals who’re experiencing similar obstacles that he encountered.
Community Aid Network, meanwhile, is a mutual aid collective based in Minneapolis, MN and another participant in the Bridge Builders film project. CAN’s work focuses on traditionally marginalized groups that suffer from the simultaneous crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism—especially since 2020, when the group was founded.
Haki Sekou and Community Aid Network—both featured in short films as part of Bridge Builders—will be able to leverage their participation in the project to bolster the work they’re already doing in their local communities as well as the impact of the film itself.
As exemplified above, by engaging with film participants and community partners from the first moments of a project, you can gain a more profound understanding of the topic you’re trying to address and further the reach of your story. Reflection and deep engagement with people who have firsthand experience of the topic you’re covering allows you to become a more ethical and effective filmmaker.
How this engagement reaches audiences and communities alike, though, always varies, and the key is not to be rigid in how an impact campaign must be brought to life. “You have an opportunity to involve people, but what’s most important is not to make that a didactic, transactional thing,” Murphy said. In other words, you can’t dictate the effect your film will have on society—sometimes it isn’t realistic to believe a movie will lead to national policy change—but that doesn’t make its influence any less impactful. “It also could be about creating spaces for your audiences, and using that power to create community…to create spaces for healing and processing. Impact can take a lot of different forms.”
During her tenure at Working Films, Murphy learned firsthand how important flexibility is. “We held a strategy summit for an upcoming initiative and Kim Pevia, a Lumbee and cultural organizer—now Working Films’ board co-chair—raised the issue of extractive storytelling in their community and the harmful effect that it has, in particular, in communities of color that have faced environmental devastation.” In that moment, the team at Working Films had an awakening moment which allowed them to grow. “I think organizations like ours need to be vulnerable enough to explain our learning and to encourage learning.” Indeed, it is necessary for filmmakers to be just as vulnerable: to understand that lesson and be open to other perspectives.
This vulnerability—being willing to have open, respectful and honest conversations with film participants—can lead to a common understanding. Simpson explained that once that common intention is achieved, the realm of what’s possible flourishes. “The upshot is collaborations among stakeholders who do the work already so that we're not beginning from scratch,” she said. By truly collaborating with members of a community organization or an NGO, all sides can benefit from greater potential impact.
Documentary films have great potential to change our society. By continuing to speak with and solicit feedback from film participants, that potential becomes infinite.