Social issue documentaries: Building a movement

Here in the Twin Cities, we’ve just experienced an interesting media frenzy about a social issue documentary called Troubled Waters: A Mississippi River Story that was produced by the University of Minnesota and funded by various foundations and governmental agencies. The one-hour film–which was scheduled to debut on Twin Cities Public Television this month–examines the contribution of modern agricultural techniques to the dangerous degradation of Midwest water and soil, and the burgeoning growth of the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

A few weeks before the film’s scheduled airing, the University’s vice president of external affairs pulled the plug on it. They said they were going to have to review it more closely and that it villified agriculture. I won’t get into the PR debacle this last-minute censorship unleashed for the University (and rightly so in my opinion)–that’s a sad cautionary tale in and of itself. The story broke in a community media blog and spread to every other media outlet in the region. After much public outcry and pressure from funders and advocacy groups, the University allowed the film to be shown to a SRO crowd at the University and finally, to be shown on Twin Cities Public Television—without any pre-promotion.

I watched it last night, and was impressed at how clearly it raises important questions about U.S. farm policy and points toward next practices that could help stem the rapid loss of our best soil and the pollution of our watersheds. With all the publicity surrounding it–I’m hopeful it will have a long shelf life and eventually reach a much larger audience.It deserves that kind of exposure. (I wish I could give you a link to the film, but both the University and Twin Cities Public Television provide only minimum text information on their sites. I hope that changes!)

All this reminded me what a powerful medium film has become for igniting social movements. We all haunt the halls of YouTube, but we sometimes overlook the extraordinary film documentary work that’s being done to help people understand the causes and solutions for what seem like intractable problems. It’s not just Al Gore and Michael Moore—there are hundreds of writers, directors, and producers devoting their talents to this new way of educating citizens and building social movements. Here’s a great blog post from the Center for Social Media at The American University on Social Issue Documentaries: The Evolution of Public Engagement.

The good news is that—like Troubled Waters, which was funded in part by The McKnight Foundation—foundations are starting to grasp the promise of film documentaries. Obviously, this isn’t a realistic communications undertaking for most nonprofits—high quality production and distribution cost money. But for foundations, large nonprofits, and consortia of nonprofits—it can be a very effective way of sparking public and media interest, and getting more people engaged in behaviors that support the common good. And remember, as the line between television and computer blurs, these productions could gain much wider viewership in the next few years.


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