From Empathy To Impact: How to Create an Effective Impact Strategy for Documentary Film

“Story telling is an important part of our education; it strengthens us and helps us build resilience.”

-Dr. Joy DeGruy

In Asheville, 35% of black students are reading at grade level, compared to 71% of their white counterparts. While statistics of this nature reveal disparities within the educational system, the lives and experiences of the students behind those statistics offer insight on how those disparities shape our communities.

What is an Impact Strategy?

An impact strategy is a plan for using a documentary film to spur intentional action on the part of the viewers. While the film gets viewers to feel something, it is the impact strategy that assists viewers with turning what they feel into action designed to produce such outcomes as changed minds, changed behaviors, or changed systems. The impact strategy serves as a means for filmmakers to empower people and elevate the work of those who rarely see their experiences on screen.

Many of us can agree that a good documentary film helps audiences feel empathy for the people featured. In these ever-evolving and increasingly volatile times, documentary filmmakers are being challenged by funders, distributors and audiences alike, to move beyond telling stories that simply foster empathy and explore how film can be used to drive measurable results.

Impact strategies can include any combination of such things as planned screening events, development of educational materials, collaboration with various organizations, convening of conferences or networking sessions, and much more. These strategies are best defined in partnership with others locally and nationally who have a connection to the issues presented in the film. Most often, these people or organizations are operating on a grassroots level, under the radar of major media and outside the public discourse. An effective impact strategy can result in contributions of time, talent, money and more to the areas where there is urgent need.

Create a Clear Vision

Beneath The Veneer is a documentary about opportunity, success and inequity in America. Our vision for the impact of this film is to acknowledge systemic inequity and its impact on black, brown and low income communities. Compel viewers to understand the traumatic impact of multi generational inequity. Motivate viewers to take transformational action to dismantle systems of oppression.

We are developing the strategy to realize this vision with the guidance and support of our Advisory Team, a collection of more than two dozen community leaders who share the same vision. This strategy will include measurable outcomes as well as specific steps that others can take to support the intended outcomes.

Use Community Events to Introduce Your Story and Build Support

Currently, part of our strategy involves presenting the short film Upwardly Mobile to various audiences, followed by a discussion on topics from the film and ending with clear calls to action for those in attendance. This model, film + discussion + action, is central to our work and informs our process during the production of Beneath The Veneer. and the development of our impact strategy. So far, we’ve been able to have screenings for audiences in Asheville, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. We recently received support from the We Shall Overcome Fund that will allow us to share the experience with audiences in other locations as well.

We look forward to sharing more about our impact strategy, perspectives from Advisory Team members and comments from audience members in future posts. We’ll also share details on how we work with Advisory Team members and a network of community leaders to create, refine and execute the impact strategy.

Systemic inequity plays a major role in limiting opportunities for success in communities of color. We believe that the production of Beneath The Veneer and our impact strategy can lead to solidarity with and support for historically marginalized communities, like those featured in the film.

Screening Upwardly Mobile

Screening Upwardly Mobile

Upwardly Mobile Film Screening

Screening of Upwardly Mobile at the African Americans in WNC Conference.

Filmmaking in general, and documentary filmmaking in particular, is a multi-layered process. While most people are familiar with the activities surrounding the release and promotion of a finished film, few are aware of the tremendous amount of effort that comes in the years leading up to that time. In our case, the process of filming is only one of three key areas of activity related to making Beneath The Veneer. strong>Two other critical functions involve raising money and building an audience. We can achieve this by screening Upwardly Mobile.

Raising Funds and Building an Audience

Earlier this month, we kicked off the first in what will be a series of events, locally and nationwide, to address both of those critical areas. Using the short film Upwardly Mobile, which we produced last fall, we’ve been hosting public and private screenings with various communities to introduce the people, places and issues to be featured in Beneath The Veneer. This has allowed us to engage others in conversations about opportunity, success and inequity as it relates to youth growing up in historically marginalized and disenfranchised communities.

While some of these events will allow us to appeal for financial and volunteer support of the film, all of them will raise awareness of the numerous ways that youth are impacted by systemic inequity. Since Upwardly Mobile shows not only the conditions that are faced by youth in historically marginalized and disenfranchised communities, but also the ways in which dedicated members of those communities are working to address those conditions, the film serves as a powerful tool for audience engagement.

So far, we’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback from these events. Whether the audience has consisted of wealthy, white, privileged allies or people of color working to better their lives and communities, we continue to be encouraged and inspired by the ways that Upwardly Mobile challenges viewers to see the world around them in new ways. This work has allowed us to meet new friends, supporters and collaborators, and has greatly informed us as we progress with the filming of Beneath The Veneer.

Only the Beginning

We look forward to future events like this and encourage you to check back often for news of upcoming screenings, or to contact us if you’re interested in bringing Upwardly Mobile to your community.





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