The social impact of a transmedia project: The Zero Impunity model

A rich and thoughtful transmedia project that makes the most of a wide range of online support (investigative reports, petitions, animated documentaries, public space events, and more), Zero Impunity deals with a difficult, deliberately obscure subject in today’s world: sexual crimes in times of war. An interview with Nicolas Blies, Stéphane Hueber-Blies, and Marion Guth, founders of the a_BAHN production company and the driving force behind the project.

The need to reveal

“Four years ago, Marion Guth went to Rwanda on another project and started talking to survivors of the genocide”, Stéphane said. “The idea of a documentary on wartime sexual violence began to emerge over the course of these conversations and one of the survivors agreed to talk to us...provided that we guaranteed she would be heard!”

“We then started asking ourselves a lot of questions and we concluded that a documentary alone would not be enough, that we had to think of a more powerful vehicle, one with much wider reach. That’s how we began thinking about Zero Impunity, with those goals in mind.”

All documentary works evolve in varying contexts that make it necessary to correctly diagnose public understanding of the subject. As proposed in a previous article (in French only), the ideal positioning of a documentary statement will depend on two major factors:

  1. Is the public aware of the problem?
  2. Does the subject generate strong opposition?

What resulted is the reading grid below (in French only), inspired by the work of the Fledgling Fund

For Zero Impunity, the context is clearly that of a problem that’s not well known, in a context of strong opposition. “Financing has been complex, particularly because of the political and particular nature of the project”, Stéphane said. “We’re attacking, among others, the UN, the US military, the French army ...” The project still receives subsidies from Luxembourg – where of 90% of public funding comes from – and in France. The balance of the $2.2 million budget is provided by cash contributions from the two co-producers, Webspider in France and Mélusines Production in Luxembourg.

“We also received plenty of threats, both physical and online. And we’ve had to deal with heavy censorship, like in the French media for Opération Sangaris (in the Central African Republic), with some media refusing flat-out to support us. Even big NGOs refused to collaborate because we were attacking their financial backers...”

Finally, they got down to investigative reports as a necessity. The team selected six major topics that deal with sexual crimes committed during major conflicts – in Syria, in the Ukraine – including by the most powerful armed forces – the United States, France – while questioning the accountability of the UN and the International Criminal Court.

“It was never our intention to punish the guilty parties ourselves,” Nicolas said. “Our idea was primarily to expose the system and find solutions, including legal. That’s why a number of proposed concrete actions were developed.”

Each investigative report is linked to a petition requesting a regulatory or legal change in the country concerned. For example, the team is developing ‘a training program to combat sexual violence’ for military schools in France. “That’s why we met with the ministry of defence and why we will certainly get a hearing at the National Assembly,” Nicolas said with justified enthusiasm. “At the same time, we introduced a bill in the Ukraine to harmonize Ukrainian law with European human rights law.”

What does the project’s tangible success, significant social impact, and perhaps the development of a new activist model mean? Let’s look into the details of Zero Impunity’s production and distribution process to understand the reasons for its success.

Dissemination is just the beginning

“We found our media partner in France, Médiapart, just one week before we launched,” Stéphane Hueber-Blies said. “Because we wanted to work in total freedom, we decided to look for partners at the last minute, running the obvious risk of ending up with none...”

The absence of a media co-producer allowed the team to move ahead without constraints, a potentially perilous decision they considered necessary in terms of the subject’s sensitivity and the temptations to censor their work. However, not having an official partner doesn’t mean they neglected the distribution aspect. The team has always been obsessed with making the strongest impact possible. The big question is ‘how’. The solution quickly presented itself: depend on content to do the job – investigative reports – and go above and beyond the norm. With each report, more people added their names to the petition and more and more concrete actions to solve the problem came to light.

Nicolas Blies replays the chronology of the project. “The French investigative report, for example, is released on January 4, 2017, accompanied with its petition,” he said. “We didn’t get an answer from François Hollande, so when Emmanuel Macron took office April, we launched a new operation. In June 2017, we organized screenings on the facades of the ministry of defence and the National Assembly. This ended up getting the ministry’s attention, and we finally had a meeting with them in September 2017, nine months after the report was posted!”

The goal of social impact is to transform the temporality, the traditional linear progression, of the entire project. “The investigative reports dissipate quickly whereas actions take more time,” Stéphane said. “The project will only be completed when we get answers to our questions.”

The end of production and posting the content are just a stepping stone, a promise that has yet to be fulfilled.

In the end, Zero Impunity will find many media co-broadcasters, with just one small regret however: not having managed to get the big players in on the adventure. No one from the English-speaking media, especially the Americans, wants to touch a taboo subject like this.

Despite all this, the audience was still there for the story with more than a dozen pickups internationally and translation into six languages. Multilingualism has given the project huge reach, especially in the Middle East, as well as in many European countries where dissemination is considered a success (France, Ukraine, Italy, Spain). The disappointment comes more from countries where no media at all wanted to carry the story – like Belgium – or where they didn’t maintain the intense pace the team wanted, like in Germany.

This shows how important it is to integrate as many national and local partners into any project if global impact is your goal. Posting content online only in English is no longer enough to reach everyone…

It’s the parts that make the whole

As you can see, it’s the investigative reports that are the key to building a much larger campaign. They motivate viewers to sign the petitions. The petitions provide a basis to support concrete legislative proposals to the authorities in the countries concerned. The proposals are then supported by ambush operations like the many screenings to date in France, the US, Jordan, and even Syria.

“We weren’t on the ground in Syria, but we worked with our network of local partners to project a photo of an activist who had lost seven of her eight children during the war and was someone Bashar al-Assad wanted to see dead. She’s a bit like the mother of all rebels...”, Stéphane Hueber-Blies said. “We never ask for permission. There’s no reason to ask for it when it comes to using a public space. We’ve completely reclaimed this space and made it our rule to always do so. Especially when it comes to highlighting voices and messages that are otherwise stifled in the public conversation.”

Videos of these operations circulate freely on social media and reinforce public interest in the investigative reports while at the same time powerfully reaching out to the authorities...They all participate in a virtuous media cycle that – because it is coherent – is continually fed by the various platforms.

And it’s not over yet: each person who has signed the petition is also digitized into an avatar and becomes a permanent participant in a virtual march. At the time of writing, more than 400,000 avatars were marching in this virtual public space.

One way to measure the scale of the movement, even when setting aside all other evidence, is the sheer number of people who were moved enough by what they saw to sign the petition.

While the virtual march may not have reached the numbers its creators expected, it nonetheless remains a beautiful example of what they have achieved. The 400,000 signatures are proof that the project touched millions of people in dozens of countries. The ongoing march is probably a bit too virtual, but it does indicate its profound social impact.

The quality of the investigative reports has provided a solid foundation on which to build a complex media ecosystem where all elements feed each other. The result is difficult to perfectly describe in words since you’re bound to miss many of the thousand and one small and large details that come together to make this ambitious adventure work, not to mention the extraordinary way temporality is transformed.

To get a better measure of the impact the project, one could turn to the upcoming Zero Impunity documentary currently in final edit. It combines basic documentary cues with animation to provide an even more unusual experience, yet it always stays focused on social impact.

Here again, the team does anything but follow any established model. “We didn’t look for any help in making the documentary because we didn’t write anything before starting the investigative reports,” Nicolas said. “The documentary was written intuitively in real time as we went along and the animation studio kept hard at work while the writing progressed.”

By necessity, the film is being released more than one year after the written investigative reports. The challenge will be to rekindle interest in the issue, again a complex task, but one that will undoubtedly be facilitated by the pre-existence of a large network of partners and a growing global community.

Is this a new production model?

“Our way of producing has always included some kind of commitment,” Stéphane said, “but Zero Impunity is the first project where the commitment goes this far! We can’t imagine doing it any other way now. We’ll be building all our projects this way going forward, whether we initiate them internally or accept ideas from outside.”

For a_BAHN producers, the Zero Impunity experiment is the example to follow, for themselves and hopefully for other creators looking for global impact. It’s a model that responds to a deconstruction and reconfiguration of the media power structure and the different creative genres in the digital age.

“We realized there was a gap between the media impact of a documentary film, that of a purely digital project, and that of a journalistic project. Everyone brings something different,” Stéphane Hueber-Blies said. “Our ambition is now to mix everything up to obtain a chronology of audience impact based on the different supporting media.”

Their next project will deal with feminism and will use the same type of structure. It will be a little less politically sensitive, but the same scheme can be applied. And perfected. “We are in the process of building an international network that covers the US and the entire African continent, as well as Europe and Asia,” Nicolas Blies said. “We’re building a kind of journalistic world map. So, we expect we’ll be able to go far beyond the impact we created with Zero Impunity in this new project.”

A new project and a new model that will be followed with great interest.

Benjamin Hoguet
Benjamin Hoguet is a writer and a designer of interactive and transmedia works. He has contributed to many interactive documentary, fiction and comic strip projects. He has also written for Éditions Dixit four books on new forms of storytelling that make up the La Narration Réinventée collection.
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