Hot Docs, Hot Hacks, and a Hot Announcement: Producers Institute 2012 Call for Entries

Posted on: Tuesday, May 01 2012

by Jen Gilomen, Director of Independent Media

This week at Hot Docs, we'll be discussing "Measuring And Leveraging The Digital Space" with documentary filmmakers and colleagues from industry. There's been a lot of talk about the topic of "impact" recently. As usual, storytellers are out in front of the curve, experimenting with each new tool that comes out -- Sparkwise, Popcorn, Zeega, Fusion Tables -- to present information in new ways and illuminate the most pressing issues of our time, with stories about human beings at the heart of it all.

But recently, pressure has been mounting for filmmakers to not only tell great stories, but also to tie a direct line from their documentaries to the impact their films have in the world. I think that is missing the mark of the filmmaker's role a bit, at least for some makers and stories. I think impact is all about iteration and collaboration, and we are getting closer as a field to understanding how to achieve it.

In my Animating Democracy blog post this week on ArtsUSA entitled "Stories have impact, but how do we know?," I posed several questions. They're not questions we're going to answer overnight or by looking at our latest web traffic, but they are important ones to ask nonetheless: what is the real meaning of all of this "impact" we are trying to achieve, anyway?  And how do we know when we've achieved our goals, assuming we set out with "goals" to begin with?

Not all documentarians begin following a story with a desire to affect strategic policy change or move mass numbers of people to targeted social actions. While they may end up there, they may hope to pass the metaphorical story baton on to communities and activists to carry the work forward and achieve something bigger. Part of the beauty of the field of documentary is the diversity in approaches and complexity of methods that its makers employ -- investigative journalism, anthropological observation, passionate pursuit, participatory documentation -- there seems to be a place for it all, and even, increasingly, a demand for it.

For example, at Hot Docs, I saw the youthful Alison Klayman display the results of her pursuit of a magnetic curiosity in "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry." She began the multi-year documentary project because her roommate at the time was curating an exhibition of Ai Weiwei's volume of photos from his time in New York as a student in the '70s, and she wondered about the person behind all of those intriguing and provocative black and white images tacked to the walls of her apartment.

Alison Klayman discusses her film "Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry" at Hot Docs

The equally youthful Mindaugas Survila approached his patiently observed "The Field of Magic," a multi-year anthropological study of a marginal shack community just 40km from his home in Lithuania, as a cultural anthropologist, not as a filmmaker. But the results of his study were stunning, and the story he told equally important. How did he initially gain access to his subjects? By asking if he could warm his hands by their fire -- the way so many good stories begin.

At a packed screening of "Off Label" on Sunday afternoon in Toronto's beautiful 850-seat Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, the festival-goer seated next to me explained that the theater was recently converted to an all-documentary, all-the-time theater, possibly the first of its kind in the world []. And the demand for these types of stories, and the engagement of the audiences there, is palpable.

After the screening, when probed by audience members calling for "more facts" and "more statistics" to back up the stories they had just seen, makers Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher responded by saying their film that tells the story of the pharmaceutical industry through the stories of professional human guinea pigs "isn't a call to action, it's a call to reflection." Another set of filmmakers, asserting their motivation and role as storytellers.

Seated two rows behind me at the "Off Label" screening was Kirby Dick, who has created a very different type of film, "The Invisible War," which played in the San Francisco International Film Festival a week ago and is also a centerpiece here at Hot Docs. When I interviewed Kirby a week prior at BAVC, I asked him about the components of his film that audience members were demanding after the SFIFF screening -- revelation of the perpetrators of military rape, more about rape as an epidemic in general in our society. Kirby responded by saying that his film was targeted at one very specific, narrowly defined goal of policy change, and even more narrowly, at the handful of people with the power to change that policy.  Now that is a measurable result, and a very targeted audience, and in the few months since "The Invisible War" premiered, the U.S. joint chiefs have already taken steps toward the filmmaker's target. A different role for maker and film, equally valid and important.

Later Sunday night at Mozilla's Toronto offices, we got a sneak peak at the results of the weekend's Hot Hacks event, the latest hackathon of our collaborative Living Docs venture, where documentary teams huddled with developers to prototype some of these new-fangled "living docs," experiments in interactive content online. The teams experimented with navigation through material in time and personalized viewing experiences, and the results were provocative and interesting.  
The Hot Hacks Imagination Team with Mozilla
The beauty of online experiments (versus a mastered tape sent off to a festival) is that they are both trackable and iterative -- the makers can turn loose their prototypes and see how their audiences interact with them and what works, and then improve upon the user experience.  And that is the essence of innovation -- collaboration across sectors, experimentation with stories, and iteration with feedback loops until you are able to communicate the essence of a story in a way that is received and acted upon by your target audiences.  It isn't a lightbulb that suddenly goes off, it's tweaking and re-tweaking of dimmer switches until you've shed the appropriate level of light on your story.

Few documentarians hope to flip a switch to illuminate a social injustice and then walk away.  But once the maker has bravely, and usually with much difficulty and personal sacrifice, shed that light, it is time for the rest of us to step around the fire and begin to share the story with the communities who most need it.

The big questions about impact can only be answered through thoughtful, strategic goal-setting and analysis, done via experimentation, engagement, measurement, and most importantly, via collaboration between storytellers, grassroots organizations, and the funders and technologists who support them in achieving shared social change goals. This "impact" thing is a big project, and like any big project, it takes a community working together and many different roles to operate the machine. So let's put the stories at the center of the proverbial fire, and build a bonfire together from there.

That's why the theme for this year's Producers Institute is "Stories with Impact." In one magical week in the dead of San Francisco winter (mid-October), we will gather around the campfire to hold onto a place for stories and experimentation, putting documentaries and their makers at the center of our efforts, and bringing grassroots organizations, funders, technologists, and impact strategists into the fold with the goal of gaining a better hold on this whole "impact" thing.

We are building crack teams for social change with documentary films. Want to join the circle?