A local school district loses its federal funding money over teacher behavior. A group of D.C. residents sue to block a homeless shelter in their neighborhood. And a Republican activist in Montgomery County successfully petitions to get term limits on the ballot—but a legal challenge looms.
Many documentary filmmakers pour their passion into a movie, hoping to spark discussion, action, or even legislation. Filmmakers who want to make a difference are getting savvier about how they get their message out, both on screen and in promoting their films and connecting with those in power. We explore social action documentaries.
- Jody Arlington PR Manager, AFI DOCS; Director,AFI DOCS 2013 Public-Policy Program.
- Jason Osder Director and producer, "Let the Fire Burn;" Assistant Professor, media and public affairs, George Washington University
- Chris Palmer Director, Center for Environmental Filmmaking, American University; Author, "Shooting in the Wild: An Insider's Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom"
A Closer Look At Select AFI Docs
Best Kept Secret
Graduation is a bittersweet prospect for the special education students in Janet Mino’s high school classroom. Erik, Rahamid, Kareem, among others, have found an unexpected haven in a Newark, New Jersey public high school where a fiercely dedicated staff supports students with autism and learning disabilities. Looming over the students, however, is a ticking clock where at the age of 21 they will “age out” and be thrust into a world with little resources and support. – SS
In this smart, insightful documentary, filmmaker Dawn Porter sheds light on the plight of one of our country’s most valuable and unsung warriors: the public defender. Following a small group of dedicated public defenders in the South, GIDEON’S ARMY highlights the daily battles they face within a flawed legal system where a defendant’s very life can be on the line. Overworked and underpaid with little support, these committed individuals sacrifice a great deal in the name of justice. – AP
Lost For Life
Is it right for juvenile offenders to receive lifetime prison sentences without parole? This thought-provoking film explores the complex issue with input from both the perpetrators – all charged with first degree murder – and the victims’ families. As they revisit the often shocking details of their brutal crimes, it is easy to dismiss the killers as hopeless. Is it possible, however, for some of them to truly change and make a meaningful contribution to society as free men? – AP
I Learn America
At the International High School at Lafayette, a New York City public high school dedicated to newly arrived immigrants from all over the world, five teenagers confront adolescence, strive to master English, adapt to families they haven’t seen in years and create a future of their own in a new land. Through these five vibrant young people, their stories and struggles, we “learn America.” – JMD
Let The Fire Burn
On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia’s municipal authorities battling the black liberation group MOVE dropped incendiary, military-grade explosives onto an Osage Avenue row house. The ensuing six-alarm inferno killed five children and six adults, destroying 61 homes. This absorbing yet unfathomable saga is adeptly retold without commentary, using archival footage including previously withheld materials. Filmmaker Jason Osder recreates a chilling saga of simmering fanaticism and purposeless destruction, recalling the seminal event of his suburban Philly childhood. – TM
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, outdoor film festivals are a big and growing part of summer entertainment in our region. We check out some places you can catch a movie under the stars.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, documentary films can be many things. They might be educational, teaching us about the Civil War. They might be entertaining, revealing the habits of meerkats in the Kalahari. But the goal of many nonfiction films is to persuade. Filmmakers pour their passion into a movie in the hopes that it sparks a discussion, action or even legislation.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd many are getting savvier about how they get their message out both on screen and in promoting their cause. Joining us to discuss this is Jody Arlington. She heads the "Directing AFI Docs" Public Policy Engagement Program. She's also a public relations director for AFI Docs presented by Audi. Jody Arlington, thank you for joining us.
MS. JODY ARLINGTONThank you so much for having us.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Chris Palmer. He is the director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University and the author of the book "Shooting in the Wild." Chris, good to see you again.
MR. CHRIS PALMERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd joining us in studio is Jason Osder. He is the director and producer of the documentary titled "Let the Fire Burn." It's a part of the AFI Docs Festival this year. He's a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. He also has a post-production boutique called Amigo Media. Jason Osder, thank you for joining us.
PROF. JASON OSDERGreat to be here. Thanks.
NNAMDIThe AFI Docs runs from June 19 to June 23 of this year for those of you who are interested, and I know there are many of you who are. You can also join the conversation if you have questions or comments for our panelists by calling 800-433-8850. What do you think makes for a persuasive film? 800-433-8850. Jody, next week is the start of the annual AFI Docs Festival, and it's going to be a little different this year. Can you talk about what's new?
ARLINGTONYes, absolutely. So this year, we are initiating a massive expansive -- expansion into Washington, D.C. We will be presenting our films at the museum, at the Smithsonian American History and Portrait Gallery Museums...
ARLINGTON...at (word?) and at the National Archives. We are also having, you know, this wonderful public policy initiative where we're engaging filmmakers with the Hill and other administration officials.
NNAMDIAnd there's a new name.
ARLINGTONYes. So we are now AFI Docs presented by Audi, and we're really thrilled that both the American Film Institute, which was founded in the White House Rose Garden and is having a big anniversary for that coming up and Audi kind of shared our mission to be able to expand the program into D.C.
NNAMDIA little shorter this year.
ARLINGTONIt's a -- yes, yeah. So this year, basically because we were committed to showing most of our program both the beautiful AFI Silver Theatre and in D.C., we wanted to kind of get our sea legs in basically, you know, creating this new event.
NNAMDIWell, Chris, many documentary filmmakers pour their passion into a film in hopes of making a difference. Can you talk a little bit about what makes something a social action film?
PALMERYes, Kojo. I mean, a film that makes a difference is one that has a compelling story. You know, the story is the language of learning. So a compelling story, I think, emotion, you know, not rather than dry sciences having emotional stories, vivid emotional stories, I think, involving compelling characters makes a difference.
PALMERSo all these things, vivid stories, arresting visuals, compelling characters, perhaps adding a celebrity, perhaps adding humor, all these things can help make them more engaging. And if a film is more engaging, more people are more likely to listen and pay attention, but, of course, the key question is: Are they actually going to take any action?
PALMERA lot of people watch a documentary, get riled up and upset whether it's about climate change or sexual harassment or Civil War anything and then not know -- then not take any action. Their lives go on as before. And the secret with good filmmaking is producing a film that will actually produce action. In other words, persuade someone to volunteer their time in a nonprofit or make a donation or something -- do -- makes -- takes some action.
NNAMDIWhat are some examples of effective films in that realm in your view?
PALMERI think "An Inconvenient Truth" with Al Gore...
NNAMDINever heard of it, no. OK, sure.
PALMERRight. About climate change. "Planet Earth" of the BBC and Discovery, they're very effective. "Forks over Knives," recommending a plant-based diet, "Whale Wars" on Animal Planet about the Sea Shepherds Society fighting whaling by the Japanese, "The Cove," "Grizzly Man" by Werner Herzog, "Everest" by Greg MacGillivray, "Battle at Kruger," "The End of the Line" about overfishing, all these are films that contain strong stories, compelling characters and vivid visuals, and they made an impact.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. We're talking about social impact filmmaking and inviting your calls. What do you think makes for a persuasive film? Have you ever watched a documentary that moved you to action? 800-433-8850. You can also send us email to email@example.com or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. Jason, you say you went to film school and came out with a passion for documentaries. How did that happen? Did you go in with a passion for documentaries?
OSDERNo. I think at that point in my life as a young adult I was sort of looking for a mold to be in the world, you know, a way to really affect things, and it was film school, documentaries, specifically that kind of clued me into, I think, something that I was sort of I guess looking for in my life.
NNAMDIYou've got a film in this year's AFI Docs Festival. It's called "Let the Fire Burn." It's a historical film, not a social action film, but can you tell us a little bit about it?
OSDERYeah. So "Let the Fire Burn" is about an incident that happened in Philadelphia in 1985 that had a conflict with a group called Move and the Philadelphia police. And I expect some people will be familiar with this, and some people will not. And that makes for a good documentary topic. Ultimately, the conflict turned very violent, and 11 people were killed, and three city blocks were destroyed in a fire.
ARLINGTONAnd a lot of Americans don't know about this incident, so what we've done is use the archival record to make a film that we feel is very dramatic and very immediate. And we hope that it has a real emotional effect on viewers.
NNAMDIWhy did this incident have such an impact on you?
OSDERYeah. For me personally, you know, I was a kid growing up in Philadelphia, and there were children that died in this fire. There were five children and six adults killed. And as a child, it really affected me sort of on a direct emotional level. I think a lot of adults will contextualize this in terms of race relations, in terms of police brutality any number of ways. But as a child, you know, I didn't have those frames. So I looked at it. I was afraid. Children were killed. They were killed in my city. Their parents didn't protect them. And it just hit me in a visceral way.
NNAMDIFor those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Move described itself as a black liberation group in Philadelphia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was both a kind of black liberation group and a kind of back to nature group, but it also believed in self-defense.
NNAMDIAnd when its neighbors wanted it to move and the city of Philadelphia was trying to get it to move and Move began to defend itself, the city of Philadelphia basically dropped a bomb on the Move headquarters and burned out an entire city block costing a great deal in terms of loss of life and the political career of one Wilson Goode, the then-mayor of Philadelphia that very few people even remember today. So it is my understanding that all of that is captured in this documentary.
OSDERWell, I hope so, and thank you for the description, Kojo.
NNAMDII remember it well, yeah.
OSDERI guess what I would say is that it's one of those stories that has a very high -- it falls away from you, and I think every time you try to get your mind around it, there's a very high but what about factor. And what we tried to capture in the film is not a simple story that offers answers but really leave it intact so people have to deal with the complexities that are very, very complex.
NNAMDIDocumentary filmmaking is a tough business whatever kinds of films you want to make. You're now teaching journalism and filmmaking. What do you advise an idealistic young Jason Osder aspiring to become an independent filmmaker?
OSDERYeah. And I think it's an interesting question and one that we talk about a lot at the school of media and public affairs. And, you know, what I would say is a lot of these things that we learn as students are very idealistic in terms of I want to be a film director. That's a little bit like I took creative writing in college, and I want to write novels.
OSDERAnd that's good, and I tell, you know, students to hold on those passions, but also to keep track of the skills they're gaining because I think we'll all know people in all of these media careers that aspire to do one thing and then put the building blocks together through doing work for hire, through teaching, through consulting. And I just tell them, you know, do all that, but don't lose track of what you're doing it for. And that's sort of the path I followed.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Jason Osder. He is the director and producer of the documentary "Let the Fire Burn" as part of the AFI Docs Festival this year. He's also a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. Chris Palmer is joining us in studio. He's the director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University and the author of the book "Shooting in the Wild."
NNAMDIAnd Jody Arlington heads the "Directing AFI Docs" Public Policy Engagement Program. She's the PR director, the public relations director for the AFI Docs presented by Audi. Jody, as you said, this year, the AFI will be holding workshops to help filmmakers learn how to effectively get their message out and actually influence policy. Can you talk about the boot camp that you're planning?
ARLINGTONYes. Absolutely. So, you know, for the past nine years, Silver Docs has had -- has always held panels that would deal with, like, how to engage policymakers, what are best practices, and we would facilitate filmmakers having screenings down on the Hill.
ARLINGTONAnd this year because of our, you know, more expansive proximity to the halls of power, we decided to bump that up and develop a full program where we have a boot camp that will be taking place in the U.S. Capitol, hosted, you know, members of Congress really talking about how the process works, how to engage with policymakers at all the different stages of the filmmaking process.
ARLINGTONAnd in addition to kind of those workshops and we have about 40 people so far who are going to be doing that, we also are helping connect filmmakers with the right policymakers or others. And we have identified five films that we're doing kind of very specific outreach for. And I'll just quickly mention...
ARLINGTON...those. It's "Best Kept Secret," a lovely Film...
NNAMDIIt's about education and autism.
ARLINGTONYes. Absolutely. Doing "The Crash Reel," which is about brain injury. It follows, you know, the life of a snowboarder who had a brain, you know, an accident and the consequences of that. We're also doing one for "Lost for Life," which is about the juvenile justice system and whether, you know, young people are redeemable or forever. "Gideon's Army," which was at Sundance and is doing very well, that follows the -- basically the public defenders and the importance of that for justice in the world. And then there are other films that...
NNAMDI"I Learn America."
ARLINGTON"I Learn America," yes.
NNAMDIIt's about immigration.
ARLINGTONIt's a gorgeous film, and it basically follows this high school in New York and five or six different immigrant families that are dreamers and basically, you know, trying to, you know, become official, which, of course, is very topical right now. I should mention we're not -- another film that we're doing on immigration is documented by Jose Antonio Vargas, which is one of our centerpiece screenings and is also kind of like very of the moment in terms of what is happening legislatively.
NNAMDISo the boot camp is, I guess, a boot camp to try to show these filmmakers how best to make their films effective, especially with members of Congress?
ARLINGTONWell, it's basic -- yes, so basically if you want to actually affect legislative change, and a lot of people do, there are certain just kind of simple things that you can do to make sure that you are heard, that what your -- the film that you're making is actually something that, you know, Congress people would be able to use.
ARLINGTONCongress people are looking for stories to kind of explain why they're implementing policies, and the filmmakers want those polices changed. So it's really about kind of connecting the right stories to the right legislators. And also, I'd say in reference to your question earlier about, you know, what makes a good advocacy doc, you know, or a good document, you know, effective social change documentary...
ARLINGTON...absolutely, you know, I agree with Chris. It first needs to be, you know, cinematically beautiful, a good story. I would argue too that it needs to not be so powerfully one-sided that it is kind of purely one direction. I think that if you can of show, you know, both sides of the story in a way that is fair and balanced, you have a lot better chance of engaging more people in the process.
NNAMDIBefore I get to the phones, and the number again is 800-433-8850, Chris, you say what happens beyond the film itself is crucial. Talk about why it's important to do more than simply make the film and put it out there.
PALMERYeah. It is crucial because when you finish the film, that's only 50 percent of the job. The other 50 percent is create an outreach plan, a distribution plan, a marketing plan, making sure the film gets in front of the right people, so, you know, creating partnerships with nonprofit organizations who are working towards the same goals.
PALMERI think the key here is for filmmakers to see themselves as campaign directors. They're making a film in order to advance a cause. And, you know, campaigns involve many components of which -- and the film is just one. So filmmakers need to become campaign directors and to create films that have a round of social media websites, all sorts of other things that will help make sure the film get this message across to the right people.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Don your headphones, please, so that you can hear our caller, who is Robert in Baltimore, Md. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTYes. Hello, Kojo. I'm a listener, and I love your show. Chris, Jason and Jody, very interesting conversation. My question is really two parts, and the first part is, what mechanisms are in place, if any -- and none that I'm aware of -- that reduce or eliminate the propagation of misinformation in the documentary film industry? And by just calling a film a documentary, you know, the general public seems to assume that it's the truth. And I don't know, you know, I've seen many, many documentaries, which I want to believe, but, you know, where is the fact checking involved?
NNAMDIHere's Chris. Chris Palmer.
PALMERRobert, thank you for that question. Yeah, that's a very important point because we've recently seen programs like "Mermaids" on Animal Planet, which encourages gullible viewers to believe in pseudoscience. We see "Shark Week," which portrays sharks sometimes as being man-eating monsters. We see "Yukon Men," which glamorizes trapping and hunting.
PALMERWe see "Into The Pride" with Dave Salmoni, which encourages harassment of lions. We've seen "The Grey," which demonizes wolves. We've seen "Wicked Tuna" on National Geographic, which glamorizes hunting and killing of tuna. Yeah, Robert, you have -- you've hit -- you've made an excellent point. Where is the fact checking?
PALMERYou know, nowadays, these networks need to -- like Discovery, National Geographic -- they need to realize they have a goal beyond just ratings and making money. They have a -- they should have a commitment to the basic foundational -- when they were created and where they wanted to do good and benefit society. And we need to remember to that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Robert. This is a practical issue that you had to deal within the film that you just made because as I remember, there were a whole lot of points of view having to do with move and the bombing on Philadelphia.
OSDERYeah. I mean, I think it's interesting and it's a great question, and I don't think it'll be fully resolved here. I mean, the one comment I would make is we should feel that way about all media. We should feel that way about documentaries. We should feel that way about the evening news. I guess we should feel that way about Kojo, but I tend to trust him. But we should question, you know, whoever is putting that message out as a viewer, I think, that's the only real failsafe.
OSDERAnd, yeah, for me and my film, you know, you decide as a filmmaker how to deal with those issues and how to balance them out. And for me, the choice to deal exclusively with the archival record not only not to provide a narrator but not even to give primacy to specific subjects that I chose and set up in an interview and put on camera and I found that by setting a sort of strict set of rules about what I would work with.
OSDERAnd it was my goal to dish back and forth between the sides and create a lot of questioning and doubt in the viewer. And so that's the methodology that I chose. And so far, what I've seen with my film that's interesting is I really -- I wanted it to be provocative, as we always say, and people would have discussion. But I really thought because it is contentious that people would be adamant and it would make people sort of exercise.
OSDERAnd, in fact, the discussions have been very thoughtful, and people are very contemplative. And one of things that's occurred to me, as Chris said, you know, it's only 50 percent done. You figure out the film you've really made once you show it. And I realized that when you do really make an effort to balance things out, it's like people get upset at exercise when you are all piling on on one side. When you make them really think and go back and forth, you put them in a different headspace for discussion, and a strong one.
ARLINGTONYeah. I would argue that, you know, on the -- just kind of give film festival circuit kind of perspective on this, you know, I think almost all film festivals or the major ones are very attuned to when a film is too advocating on one side or the other or doesn't reflect a kind of balance because, you know, no one wants to kind of present one side, and they want to kind of engage a conversation around these things. So typically, on the whole, most, you know, most major festivals are helping to kind of curate the best of the best in that that sense.
NNAMDIWe had Kirby Dick, the director of the film "The Invisible War" on the show last year, Jody. Many people say it's one of the most powerful examples of a film actually influencing policymakers. Can you talk about why you think that film has been so effective?
ARLINGTONAbsolutely. I think that that film is going to be one in the history books that really galvanize conversation around a very high-profile, specific incident that has happened.
NNAMDISexual assault in the military, yes.
ARLINGTONYes. Basically, it's about, you know, rape in the military and, you know, did so in a way that clearly had a very, you know, clear, you know, congressional mandate that it was pushing for but also was successfully personalizing it with these very, you know, heart-rendering stories. And it, you know, very much, you know, the Department of Defense, you know, started looking at things in different ways.
ARLINGTONAnd all of the, you know, the Senate has been engaging in this and, you know, there was obviously a setback yesterday in terms of kind of some of the changes that the film is advocating for. But this is like -- this is an opening salvo and an ongoing addressing of the military's treatment of rape in the military.
NNAMDISame question to you both, Chris Palmer and you, Jason.
PALMERI just want to point out on this, Kojo, that since 1960, there's been an explosion of nature and wildlife programming on television, and yet our air, our water, our land, our wildlife are worse off, are more threatened nonetheless. So the films that I and others have been producing have been failing and have not been working. This worries me. For example, look how many films we made on wolves.
PALMERI, in the last 30 years, have made four films myself on wolves, and yet they are about to be delisted and lose their protection from the federal government under the Endangered Species Act. Hundred of wolves are going to be brutally shot, poisoned, snared and trapped, yet we've had this hours and hours of wonderful footage on television, extolling the beauty and importance of wolves. Why have we failed?
NNAMDIThat question, I cannot answer. But, Jason.
OSDERI agree that "The Invisible War" will go down in history, and one of the places you can see this -- I saw the film (unintelligible) in sort of a second festival run where it was being done sort of educationally. And there's a card at the end of the film, a text card that says, you know, the secretary of defense watched the film and changed the things he was in power of changing himself two days later. And when I even told that to someone who'd seen the film earlier at Sundance, they said, wow, to be able to put that card up at the end of the film.
OSDERAnd they were like, what are you taking about because the card went up between Sundance and the next year, right? Like, that's the effect it's having where actually like the end of the film is different because it has changed things. So I think that's fascinating. And then I'm thinking about my own film which works in a different way. But I think some things are the same even when they different 'cause a lot of the work -- I mean, there's no policy associated with my film.
OSDERThere's nothing to -- action to change as a human, as an individual. But I'm doing a lot work now to say, well, what could this film do for the communities that were affected and take it back to Philadelphia? And I'm starting to think that there could be a really powerful effect to help the actual place in community where there's really a scar and where the tragedy took place. So these things can work in different ways. There's always outreach and engagement even when it's not political.
NNAMDIRunning out of time very quickly, but Jody, this is a particularly interesting week to be talking about the power of documentary films. It was noted that both The Guardian and The Washington Post stories that broke last week on government surveillance included a filmmaker named Laura Poitras on the byline.
ARLINGTONYes. She is, you know, she has made several films and because of those -- dealing with Iraq and the world after 9/11, and because of those, she has been detained and had all of her materials looked at, you know, over 40 times since then. And you know, the leaker actually leaked to her because, you know, he recognized that she was someone who was being directly -- an American citizen being directly impacted by this issue. So I would look for more bylines from her on this issue and also a film detailing this down the line.
NNAMDIYou were going to make a point earlier?
ARLINGTONI was just going to say that as -- we do this filmmaker Q and As every year, and I happened to throw in this year, you know, what was the most cinematically beautiful film you ever saw and what did you view as the most impactful film, you know, ever. And I just want to -- we -- I don't have the exact stats.
ARLINGTONBut I know that many people mentioned Errol Morris' "Thin Blue Line" because it, you know, it resulted in a killer being caught, and he, of course, is our Guggenheim honoree. So if you would like to come and see a retrospective of his work, you can do that at the National Archives. And then also, many people mentioned Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's "Paradise Lost" trilogy that basically, you know, freed, you know, those young men who were wrongfully convicted.
NNAMDIAnd we got this from Melinda from Silver Spring who says she's a proud supporter of AFI. She -- no, I'm sorry. This is an email we got from Tina, who says, "A documentary that changed my life: "Food, Inc." It changed the way I ate. It was a great documentary."
ARLINGTONI have to say "Food, Inc." is one -- I think is another prime example of a film that did everything right, and really, you know, they partnered with Louise Slaughter on the Hill around antibiotics and food. And you know, there -- that's a great model for any filmmaker who want to impact change.
NNAMDIJody Arlington, she's the PR director of AFI Docs presented by Audi. She is the -- directing AFI Docs Public Policy Engagement Program. Jason Osder is the director and producer of the documentary "Let the Fire Burn," which is part of the AFI Docs Festival this year. He's a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. He has a post-production boutique called Amigo Media.
NNAMDIChris Palmer is the director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University and the author of "Shooting in the Wild." Thank you all for joining us. When we come back, outdoor film festivals. They're big. They're growing. We'll check out some of the places you can catch a movie under the stars. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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