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Four Good Reasons Not to Make a Social Issue Documentary – And Three Examples of Why You Should

I’ve always felt that there’s something slightly discomfiting about people who think the only way to help is by pointing a camera at someone worse off than themselves; especially if they insist on feeling righteously aggrieved at being ‘forced’ into being an impoverished artist in order to save the world. Besides which, although there is a growing awareness from NGOs about the possibilities of using documentary films to raise the public profile of their issues, broadcasters (who have more money for funding) are pushing back, reluctant to fund films that push a particular agenda. Nick Fraser of BBC’s Storyville documentary strand and Mette Hoffmann Meyer, Head of Documentaries and Co-productions at DR TV, Denmark are particularly outspoken about this, as you can see in this video from Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012.

So should you bother making a social issue documentary? There are a number of good reasons, alongside those outlined in the video, why you shouldn’t:

  1. Just because you care deeply about an issue, it doesn’t mean that you should expect other people to finance your outrage and then spend 90-minutes of their free time being hit over the head with the hammer of guilt.
  2. If you really care about an issue, why don’t you just roll up your sleeves and raise some money to donate to the people who are working on the ground to improve the situation? Or get down there and get stuck in yourself, working for an organization that already believes in the issue you are trying to raise awareness of.
  3. Charities and foundations are already spreading their message and are doing it for free via clever use of social networking sites (or through in-house filmmakers); making a documentary is an expensive way to preach to the converted (which will probably be your only audience). If they want to include a documentary film as part of their message it will be only one part of their marketing strategy. In other words, your film isn’t as important to them as you might think it is.
  4. By the time you’ve raised your money, filmed and edited your documentary, which is likely to be several years worth of effort, the world will have moved on, and your documentary might well be out of date before you’ve even found a distributor. Even if it’s not, it won’t have an indefinite shelf life.

Much better to find a timeless story that will keep your documentary in circulation for many years to come. The clever filmmaker will of course find a timeless story that pulls in the audience through its compelling narrative but that also has an issue at its heart that will stay with the audience long after the credits have rolled. Some of my favourite examples include:

The Interrupters

The Central Park Five

Uprising: Hip Hop & the LA Riots

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