Welcome to Story Power, our monthly column on people who are growing our understanding of how documentary films can influence society. Here, we're back with a knowledge-packed conversation with Ani Mercedes, impact producer and founder of Looky Looky Pictures, about the vital role that documentary participants can — and should — play in your impact campaign.
In 2016, at a workshop that Doc Society was presenting in Colombia, Ani Mercedes was struck by an image of Bruce Lee that appeared on the screen with the words, “Enter the Impact Producer.” The friends she was with, and the director who had recently hired her, all turned to Mercedes knowingly. “In that moment, I became an impact producer,” she told me. “This is what I’ve been waiting for my entire life.”
Ani is an impact producer and founder of Looky Looky Pictures, a company that helps small documentary film teams make a big impact. And like so many of us, the journey that led her to where she is was anything but straightforward, and her experiences along the way have kindled a potent understanding of impact campaigns, which we’ll explore below.
The beginning of Ani’s journey was guided by an examination of people. “I've always asked this question of ‘how do people connect with one another and why do they stay connected?’” After watching the iconic documentary Hoop Dreams, she loved it so much that she convinced her brother to watch it. “He loved it, too.” she recalled, “He saw himself in it.” She said the experience could constitute her first impact campaign, in a way. What she felt in that moment would eventually lead her to found Looky Looky Pictures.
In school, Ani studied anthropology. She looked at the rise and fall of complex societies with a scientific eye. Yet her ardor for art was ever present: she spent a month examining the Louvre alone while studying abroad in Paris. And she found the nexus of these passions in documentary film. At first, though, it seemed that a career in film wasn’t meant to be. She applied to be an intern at Kartemquin films—which produced Hoop Dreams—and was rejected. “I saw that as a sign from the universe that I should not be working in documentary film,” she said. Instead, she went to work on both of President Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and intern at the White House. Yet she still couldn’t shake the dream of docs. She reapplied to work at Kartemquin Films after gaining a bit more life experience and earning a master’s degree. And then it happened. She was hired by Zak Piper to do transcriptions for several Kartemquin Film projects, and the journey began.
By this time, Ani had a unique set of skills that allowed her to excel in the conception and activation of impact campaigns. “Everything I do when it comes to getting a film to an audience is rooted in everything I learned in community organizing on political campaigns,” she explained. It’s in the seemingly opposite fields of art and politics that Ani has synthesized a strategy for building community through storytelling. “I can bring together art and policy in documentary film,” she said, “but the impact layer is actually using it as a tool.” To her, a successful impact campaign accounts for the people it impacts most—the filmmaker, the film participants and the community with which they are all engaged. When these things are in alignment, a film’s impact can be felt.
Frequently, the filmmaker can be overlooked during the process of creating an impact campaign, Ani explained. Yet they are at the center of everything that should occur. “If they’re making a film for impact because their life is intimately intertwined with the story, it’s very important that they reflect on the impact the film is having on their own life, first,” she said.
And it’s the filmmaker, Ani believes, who must be the nucleus of any impact campaign. “If they don’t feel like the film needs an impact campaign, then it shouldn’t have one.” Ani explained. She sees filmmakers on a spectrum—some might believe that journalistic ethics precludes participation in an impact campaign, while others may feel a responsibility to advocate on behalf of their film’s participants. “You can see what other people are doing in the world, but you need to be able to stand on your principles wherever you are in that spectrum.” she said. It is with similar intention that she considers the participation of people and communities who are depicted in documentaries.
A documentary’s participants are vital to an impact campaign. “It doesn't mean that they have to be a part of [the impact campaign],” Ani explained, “but they have to be part of the conversation that asks them, ‘Do you want to be a part of this, too?’” One project that Ani recalled working on was Through the Night by Loira Limbal. The film is about childcare providers; it follows three mothers whose lives intertwine at a 24-hour childcare center based in a home. Limbal herself is a mother who relies on childcare. “She had a very clear vision that aligned with her own self care and with communal care,” Ani explained. The film had been slated to premiere at Tribeca—a plan that was stalled because of the Covid 19 pandemic. Yet Limbal’s connection to this story—and the close work done with the film’s participants—guided the campaign which helped lead to historic legislation benefiting childcare workers.
The third aspect of an impact campaign is the relationship with the community: how can the film be used as a tool to further their work? For example, a community can have many goals: advocating for legislation, focusing on change within a community or making visible stories that have been traditionally overlooked.
Impact campaigns are still relatively new to the field of documentary film, and there really is no industry-wide standard answer to “What is an impact campaign?” Yet by allowing this to remain a question, filmmakers can create more effective impact campaigns that align with their own vision.
What does this look like in practice? On the ground, it could mean providing the community featured in the film with a watch party template while simultaneously asking, “if you could do the most amazing thing—the most ambitious use of this film–what would you want to do with it?” Ani asks this, and it’s Looky Looky Picture’s paradigm for impact campaigns: seeking the transformational rather than the transactional.
As Ani explains it, it’s the filmmaker’s job to focus on the emotional resonance of a film. Without that, a documentary is little more than a policy paper. “No one cries over the policy paper,” Ani often says. In her opinion, trying to manifest tangible policy change from a film is almost like trying to force a poem to tell you what it means. “That's not the job of the poem,” she said. “But then someone like me can come and say, ‘Wow, there are people with whom this poem can resonate. Let me find them.’”
This expertise—of impact producers as well as community organizers—highlights the way in which a small filmmaking team can be most effective. The benefit of an open and communicative relationship with the community depicted in your film provides vital guidance. What’s just as important is that a collaborative relationship can ease the burden on small filmmaking teams and individual filmmakers. “Don't set yourself on fire to keep other people warm” Mercedes said. By asking a community for help, you can realize a more powerful way to tell stories by enabling them to inspire, awaken, and impact those who watch.
If you want helpful resources from Looky Looky Pictures then you can explore these: