As a film-maker, I know how gratifying it can be when your film receives four-star reviews and wins prestigious awards. But for film-makers who are interested in creating a piece of art that also inspires change, how can we measure the impact of our work beyond the industry, in the real world?
For the past 10 years I have created and disseminated documentary films for Just Vision, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the power and legitimacy of Palestinians and Israelis working to end conflict and build a future of freedom, security, dignity and equality for both parties in the region. We know that our work has reached millions through television broadcasts,as well as online and through community screenings in 400 cities in 46 countries across all seven continents. But how do we know if it is actually having an impact on one of the most divisive geopolitical issues of our time?
The field of media impact assessment is progressing quickly. Historically, documentaries were judged in simplistic terms based on whether they achieved a desired impact or not. More recently, groups such as BritDoc, the Harmony Institute and the Fledgling Fund are producing sophisticated tools for understanding the extent of a film’s influence and the mechanics behind it. Since most film-makers do not have the intention or capacity to create multiple projects on the same subject, the focus has been on analysing the journey of an individual film without examining how follow-up projects might increase its overall impact. At Just Vision, we have been building the infrastructure to achieve this.
Our second documentary feature, Budrus, follows a Palestinian community organizer, Ayed Morrar, who united Palestinian political factions and hundreds of Israeli activists in an unarmed struggle to save his village from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier. Hardly anyone had heard of Budrus before the film’s release, but we wanted to do more than put this small village on the map – we wanted our film to inspire others to work towards non-violent solutions in the Middle East.
Using surveys and other qualitative methods, we gathered anecdotal evidence of the film’s impact in the region. For example, Ayed Morrar began receiving invitations to speak at venues that were previously uninterested in hosting non-violence leaders, and other villages reported that attendance spiked at their demonstrations after the film screening.
A major PR firm conducted an independent audit comparing media coverage generated by the film after its 2009 release with coverage of the demonstrations in 2003. Not only had our film increased media coverage of Budrus but also the narrative had shifted. References in 2003 framed events in the village as chaotic riots and a threat to law and order, but coverage after the film’s release emphasized the strategic non-violence of the campaign and the presence of women’s leadership.
However, we didn’t just measure the film’s impact because we wanted proof of concept. From the evaluation, we learned two main lessons to increase the influence of our subsequent efforts.
First, we found that while Budrus had spoken to the Palestinian adult population, we fell short in terms of youth engagement. So we produced a follow-up – a graphic novel, in Arabic, telling the story of Budrus from the perspective of one of the film’s protagonists, a 15-year-old Palestinian girl who organizes the women to join the protests. We wanted to galvanize young people by providing a role model who shows that ordinary, local teenagers have the capacity to create change. We have already shared the graphic novel with 1,500 students across the Palestinian Territories, with additional outreach under way.
Second, we realized that many international audiences did not grasp that the movement that began in Budrus had spread to other Palestinian communities or how their engagement could make a difference.
Our latest film, My Neighbourhood, follows a nonviolent campaign by Palestinians in East Jerusalem to prevent Israeli settlers from pushing them out of their homes. The film focuses on one family but also clearly shows how this struggle is still unfolding, house by house. Our engagement campaign prioritized concrete steps that key influencers could take to directly impact the future of the city. For example, when we screened My Neighbourhood for the European Parliament, we emphasized that Israeli courts are less likely to rule in favour of settlers taking over Palestinian homes when foreign diplomats attend the court proceedings.
As more foundations, brands, and NGOs become involved in media for social change, there will be growing opportunities for film-makers to commit to engaging with an issue for the longer term. It will be increasingly important to develop impact assessment not only to judge success or failure but also as an opportunity for growth.
Author: Julia Bacha is a Brazilian documentary film-maker, creative director at Just Vision and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader.
Image: Palestinian women protesting in Budrus. Just Vision.