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10 May 2012 

Storytelling and Impact Highlight 2012 Gleitsman Social Change Film Forum

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Student filmmakers, the intersection of social impact campaigns and compelling storytelling, food insecurity, and hugely profitable corporations that somehow manage to avoid paying taxes were the highlights of the Gleitsman Social Change Film Forum held at Harvard on March 2–3.

Sponsored by the C. Charles Jackson Foundation and CPL's Gleitsman Program in Leadership for Social Change, the forum began with a panel discussion moderated by Robb Moss, Rudolf Arnheim Lecturer on Filmmaking at Harvard, and featuring four student filmmakers from the Kennedy School: Juliet Asante, the president of Assegai, one of Ghana's largest film and production companies; Talmage Cooley, a director and producer of four films, two of which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival; Chad Troutwine, who has produced twelve films about social change, three of which debuted at Sundance; and first-time filmmaker Daniel Rotman who coproduced the 2012 film Transgression, which chronicles the struggles of transgender persons seeking asylum in the U.S.

Discussion topics ranged from how the students got into filmmaking and have subsequently managed to sustain themselves once they got into the profession, to how to strike the proper balance between making social change and telling a good story. What do you do if you discover something that makes your protagonist look bad? the filmmakers were asked. Troutwine said that in his film Freakonomics, he kept out of the end of the movie material that would have undermined the legacy of one of the protagonists, civil rights leader Stetson Kennedy. "The power of storytelling cuts both ways," said Troutwine. "This man put together an amazing career of many, many decades. I just didn't want the powerful lasting image of this film to be where he was sort of unmasked... . It just seemed a little mean-spirited... . We ultimately decided to keep it out of the film in many ways to sort of protect his legacy. We're not journalists completely—I feel that way."

Rotman said that he kept a lot of material out of Transgression that could have damaged the main character Norma's chances of being granted asylum. Although this material would have been amazing for the movie, it wouldn't have made her look very good. "I just felt a certain obligation to her to not put certain things in the film that I felt could hurt her... . In this particular film we made a lot of those types of choices to exercise power very carefully and thoughtfully in that way."

Asante characterized the dilemma as "an ongoing growth and development and growth process that every filmmaker goes through—as soon as you lose that touch you start to go downhill." Cooley observed that "you have to figure out where your own boundary is"—that line separating "serving the subject and the goal of the film and being exploitive. It's far more of an art than a science, and part of the documentary filmmaker's challenge." But most social change films are not polemical, he added; instead, they try to forge a strong emotional bond between the audience and the hero or protagonist's struggle against social injustice.

The first of the two documentaries featured at the film forum was Finding North, which dramatizes the fact that 49 million people in the U.S. don't know where their next meal is coming from by telling the stories of a single mother in Philadelphia, a fifth-grader in Colorado, and a second-grader in Mississippi whose asthma and other health issues are made worse by the fact that her mother can only afford food that is not very nutritious. The second documentary, We're Not Broke, looks at corporations that are avoid paying taxes, despite record profits—against of backdrop of sharp funding declines for programs that support the nation's social fabric.

Panel discussions about the issues highlighted by these films, and also the social impact campaigns designed to redress the associated injustices, featured Caroline Libresco, senior programmer at the Sundance Institute; Patricia Finneran, senior consultant for Sundance’s documentary film program; Sarah Newman, research manager for social action and advocacy at Participant Media; Sheila Leddy, executive director of the Fledgling Fund; Karin Hayes, director of We’re Not Broke; Kristi Jacobson, director of Finding North; James Henry, managing director of Sag Harbor Group/Northern Environmental Law Center; Alicia McCabe, director of Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters; and Peter Bisanz, director and producer of Entropy Films (and former Reynolds Fellow).

"We begin the research on our social action campaigns about a year before the film's release—before we know fully what the film will look like," said Participant Media's Newman. "We believe that seeing the movie is itself a social action, a first step in becoming more engaged." Which is why it's so important for the film to have a strong story at its core, said Leddy: "people have to be moved and compelled."

Festival acceptance, critical reviews, and success in securing a broadcast are among the metrics Leddy uses to assess how compelling a film is. Other metrics for assessing impact have to do with raising public awareness, or "increasing public engagement from passive to active."

"For each film the metrics will change," Leddy continued. For some goals, the primary goal is policy-related, which was the case with Finding North. "Our immediate goal is to put this [food insecurity] issue front and center during the election," said Jacobson—and also to raise awareness about the farm bill coming up for consideration in Congress, she added. We're Not Broke has a longer-term goal, said Henry, one that has to do with changing the mindset or underlying assumptions about a particular public conversation.

"We have representation without taxation for some of the largest corporations in the world," Henry declared. "This film is about class war, which Warren Buffet said was declared on us by the rich about 30 years ago." And so "our No. 1 initial hope," added Hayes, is to get people "to look and see why things are the way they are. From there, we want to take it to the policy level of closing tax loopholes and addressing campaign financing.

"It's not enough to be a witness to suffering and injustice. You have no right to be a witness unless do something about it."

Videos from film forum's past and present are available on YouTube.