For Docs Promoting Social Change, Impact Strategies Are Essential

Social-impact documentaries are reinventing themselves thanks to impact strategies. In such endeavours, documentary filmmakers have to think about the audiences they want to reach from the get-go as well as the specific change they want to bring about.

That is what Toni Bell, filmmaker services manager at the International Documentary Association, explained during a workshop titled ‘All about international labs’ at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) in November 2019.

“Impact documentaries are part of a trend that has emerged in the United States over the past three years. Traditionally, when we think about audiences and distribution, the goal is to get as many people as possible to see the film. When an ‘impact’ approach is used, one tries to be strategic about who should see the film to bring about a given change.”

The Impact Field Guide & Toolkit, a guide published by the Doc Society (the reference on the subject, according to Toni Bell) illustrates the nature of the change: An impact documentary aims “to change mentalities, behaviours, structures or to build communities.”

Learn more about impact documentaries

Documentary Impact: Social Change through Storytelling, by HotDocs

Charting a Course for Impact Producing in Canada, by the Documentary Organization of Canada

The same site offers a section titled “Case Studies” showcasing films that made their mark thanks to their impact strategy. It boasts a wide variety of examples, including ‘Blackfish,’ which forced SeaWorld to review its practices, and ‘American Promise,’ which provoked a reflection on the education of young African-Americans in the United States.

A homegrown example: ‘Trafic

Without its impact strategy being a carbon copy of the American method, Quebec director Catherine Proulx’s ‘Trafic’ is still part of this movement. Producer Karine Dubois of Picbois Productions explains her vision of documentary filmmaking: “Since the beginning of our collaboration 10 years ago, Catherine Proulx and I have been working on projects that shed light on little-known realities and fight preconceived notions.”

In the case of ‘Trafic,” which deals with sexual exploitation of young girls, the production team defined its target audiences very early in the development process. “We knew we wanted to reach young people who consume mostly fiction and highly cinematic content. We asked ourselves how we could get them interested.”

The film’s teaser depicted an anonymous man taking out for a stroll at night in downtown Montreal. The visual was juxtaposed with an audio testimony from a former pimp explaining how seduced his prey. The stylized excerpt was shared more than 2,200 times on Facebook.

Subsequently, the ‘Trafic’ team took advantage of its various distribution platforms (web, podcast, television) to adapt its content according to various target audiences.

“One of our personas was the voyeur, and the goal with him was to create awareness. The video’s thumbnail featured a pole dancer. But when a viewer would press ‘play’ the video was in fact and emotional and shocking testimony. We also wanted to reach well-informed parents through interviews with community workers.

Karine Dubois appreciates the film’s impact on the community: “We work with people on the ground who can benefit from our work. With ‘Trafic,’ youth centres workers will be able to show our content during their interventions. There’s a concrete impact.”

Also worthy of mention is a rather unusual parliamentary invitation: “The Select Committee on the Sexual Exploitation of Minors invited us to share the results of our research. This is certainly one of my proudest accomplishments. It validates that all these years of documentary work can have a real influence on policy decisions that will impact society.”

Funds that contribute to change

During the RIDM workshop, Toni Bell pointed out that funding for impact strategies in the United States was increasing. “These funds can cover the cost of a community screening or pay for a protagonist to travel to a public Q&A.”

She cited as examples the Impact Partners and Fledgling development funds — both of which are mainly dedicated to impact documentaries. Similar funds are indexed in the “Other Grants Directory” section of the IDA’s website ― just search using “social impact” as a keyword.

In Canada, producers can mainly rely on funds dedicated to discoverability. Karine Dubois points to the Bell Fund, which has fuelled her thinking on target audiences and marketing personas. “The Bell Fund’s discoverability envelope has requirements that have you thinking. Regardless of the platform, the same questions come up: Who is our film for? How do we address these audiences?” she explains.

Karine Dubois sees it as a new way of thinking about documentaries: “If I said that in front of marketers, people would laugh their heads off. It’s as if we producers just realized that we have to think about our target audiences from the onset of a project, that we have to learn about that audience and understand what they want to do with the information; not just broadcast a message and hope it reaches somebody. In a way, we’ve truly arrived in 2020 with this fund.”

Impact strategies are now part of Picbois Productions’ arsenal. “It’s an added value to our expertise as producers,” concludes Karine Dubois. “Especially as documentary producers. After all, it’s our job to ensure that our productions have as big an impact as possible!”


Philippe Jean Poirier
Philippe Jean Poirier is a freelance journalist covering digital news. He explores the day-to-day impact of digital technologies through texts published on Isarta Infos, La Presse, Les Affaires and CMF Trends.
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