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Social Impact Documentaries: 'Reportero'

September 10, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she returned to the subject of her very first post, the Adams County Library system in a rural part of south-central Pennsylvania, to check on its progress in improving services for the growing Latino population in the area.)

Reportero_posterAs the audience for social issue documentary films grows, the intersection between a film and its impact is of increasing concern to media funders, media organizations, and filmmakers themselves. There is general agreement that documentary films are an important source of information and opinion in our corporate-dominated media landscape and that they often provide the in-depth analysis of complex issues lacking in most mainstream media coverage. But how one measures the impact of individual films or the field as a whole is still very much a work in progress. As in other spheres, grantmakers are interested not just in the quality of the project (the film, in this case) but also in the results it leads to. And nongovernmental organizations, most of which are still learning how to best use the documentary format, are looking for models.

Two sessions at the annual "Funders Conversation" hosted by Media Impact Funders earlier this summer addressed these concerns. Indeed, the recent rebranding of the organization, which had been known since its inception as Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media (GFEM), is testament to the trend.

"Very few of our members define themselves as film funders," explained MIF executive director Vince Stehle in a conversation at the affinity group's new office in Philadelphia. "Documentary film will continue to be as important, if not more so, than it's ever been. But it's only one feature of the media landscape, along with journalism, public media, community media, social media, and technology. MIF reflects all those communitiess as they work to achieve positive social impact. And we support the growing interest in measuring impact and understanding engagement."

One session, on "Documentary Film Impact and Outreach," focused on partnerships between filmmakers and Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization founded in 1976 that uses film to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and prejudice. In partnership with Skylight Pictures (also a presenter at the session), the organization developed three video models and a study guide (available online) based on the Skylight film The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court.

Another session, "Measuring Media and Philanthropy," reported on a new initiative led by the Foundation Center's GrantCraft project and GuideStar to track and map funding for media. The session also described an inquiry into measures of engagement with, and the impact of, grantmaker-funded media projects headed by Jessica Clark of AIRmedia.

Clark was the co-author, with Barbara Abrash, of "Social Justice Documentary: Designing for Impact," an excellent working paper published by the Center for Social Media in 2011. In surveying various approaches to measuring the impact of social justice documentaries, Clark and Abrash found that several key elements were missing -- including "the value of incorporating user-focused research at each phase of a social documentary's rollout." In response, they suggested an approach called "design thinking" that stresses user involvement from the beginning of the filmmaking process. The report applies the design-thinking model to six films that "reveal the shift over the last fifteen years from an understanding of documentary films as sources of reliable information on hidden injustices to central nodes embedded in strategic campaigns designed to inform, motivate and engage viewers as active citizens."

I was reminded of Abash and Clark's paper as I followed the activities linked to community and festival screenings of Reportero, a new documentary by Bernardo Ruiz about embattled investigative journalists assigned to cover the drug wars in Mexico.

Told through the story of one reporter, Sergio Haro, and the Tijuana-based weekly, Zeta, where he works, the film follows Haro as he covers an increasingly perilous beat -- two Zeta reporters have been murdered and the paper's founder severely attacked. Wherever he goes, the film suggests, danger is close behind. "You could walk away," Haro says at one point in the film. "But you'd become another accomplice."

Reportero premiered in Mexico earlier this year in the Ambulante festival, and was subsequently screened at the Human Rights Watch film festival in New York City as well as other festivals. It will be broadcast on POV, the acclaimed PBS documentary film series, in January and will soon be available through the POV community screening program. (The Reportero Web site includes a blog and other information about upcoming screenings.)

I attended a discussion after the HRW screening featuring Haro and Carlos Lauría, senior program coordinator for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists, as well as the film's director, Bernardo Ruiz. (CPJ is the primary audience engagement partner for the film.)

"I had been exploring the possibility of making a film about the border region in Mexico just across from California, and heard about Sergio when I visited a shelter for deported children in the city of Mexicali," said Ruiz in an interview near his office in New York. "I knew about the murder of reporters in Mexico and became intrigued by Sergio's story when I met him. He had come under threat himself after he wrote about a murder for another publication. I reached out to Carlos Lauria, who manages the Americas program at the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ knew Zeta well and encouraged my interest in Sergio; their having vetted him and the newspaper reinforced my instinct to shift the focus of the film."

Based on those initial conversations, the relationship between Ruiz and CPJ deepened over the course of the project.

"I wanted to make a film that would be used, so partnering with CPJ from the beginning was a very organic step; I knew they would be able to incorporate the film into their campaigns for more effective legislation and other goals, as well as possibly using it for fundraising."

Since its premier, Reportero has given a significant boost to CPJ's ongoing agenda in Mexico. "The events in the film end in 2006, just before the most deadly wave of violence began; more than forty journalists have been killed or disappeared since then," notes Sara Rafsky, Americas research associate at CPJ. "The film does a good job of portraying the courageous work of Zeta up to that point -- really in celebrating all the journalists in Mexico that have not succumbed to self-censorship. But Reportero is also a great vehicle to keep these issues in the public sphere." (The next screening in New York City will be September 15 at The Documentary Center in the Bronx.)

In addition to CPJ, Ruiz has worked with other groups as opportunities have presented themselves. The Ambulante festival premiere in Mexico City, in February, was at the new Museum of Memory and Tolerance; the U.S. embassy and the Ford Foundation's Mexico and Central America office helped bring the Mexico representatives of Freedom House, Article 19, and CPJ to the post-screening discussion.

"In the discussion, each organization took a different issue raised in the film," says Ruiz. "But the main topic was legislation pending in Mexico at that point that would federalize crimes against journalists. That was believed to be a more effective strategy for prosecution than state level responsibility; the screening really became a forum for that debate."

Following a multiyear campaign by human rights groups, the legislation passed on March 13, a month after the film's premiere. The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas blog quotes one of the Mexican human rights defenders as saying there is "still a lot left to do" in terms of implementing the law and that "global attention and awareness of the dangers Mexican journalists face is vital in resolving the devastating problem."

Creating partnerships at the front end of the project was something Ruiz learned as co-producer of The Sixth Section, a 2003 film directed by Alex Rivera about a group of immigrants in New York State who collect funds to help their hometown in Mexico.

"I didn’t know a film could have such a broad life until the outreach phase of The Sixth Section," says Ruiz, "because we worked with community organizations, schools and grassroots centers. So by the time I began making Reportero, I was already aware of that potential. When you establish those relationships at the beginning, people sense that you're genuinely interested in their participation; you're not being opportunistic."

In addition to these kinds of venues, Reportero will be presented at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a policy and research institute in Washington, D.C., on September 14. In addition to Ruiz, the discussion will include Adela Navarro, general director of Zeta; Konstantin Kakaes, former Mexico City bureau chief at The Economist; and Tom Hudley, senior editor at the Pulitzer Center. The event is open to the public.

The variety of audiences the film attracts and the depth of connection it generates is obviously tied to the urgency of the issue. But Clark and Abrash call social issue documentaries in general "laboratories for civic engagement," noting that while "successful projects are participatory and circulate on multiple platforms...much of the most enduring work takes place on the ground -- in community screenings, professional training, in schools, etc. It is here that engagement and community building take place."

And where the real impact of a social issue documentary is perhaps best assessed.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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Posted by Prentice Zinn  |   September 22, 2012 at 08:28 AM

This post really puts into context the emerging role and power of documentary film.

As a funder, I talk to many filmakers working on amazing social impact documentaries.

But I am often at a loss in explaining how they can connect with mainstream philanthropy at all.

Filmakers with the most experience seem to have a sense that the film alone won't engage institutional funders.

Many new filmakers, however, seem stuck on the film as the outcome rather than the vehicle or context for a broaders set of interventions and outcomes.

Philanthropy and aspiring documentarians need to share more examples like this of how film can be those "laboratories for civic engagement".

I'm getting tired of saying: "Sorry, we don't fund film projects"!

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