“Plight Entertainment”: Engaging Audiences With Difficult Stories

In New Media on February 13, 2008 at 8:11 pm

This morning’s Making Your Media Matter panel addresses a central question for social issue media-makers: how can you keep people watching—and make them care—when your topic is disturbing? 

Julia Bacha, who co-wrote wrote Control Room, showed a clip from Encounter Point, a documentary film about nonviolent activists in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film was meant to serve as a platform for these activists, in contrast to the mainstream media’s focus on violence and political maneuvering. “It’s not like we’re trying to force-feed the media with something that’s not newsworthy,” said Bacha. “There have been victories on the ground.” She explained that they took the film to the film festival circuit, and opened theatrically in the U.S. In addition, they included an educational component in their distribution, including classroom guides and curriculum. They are using the film as an entry point for teachers to examine the entire conflict. They found that that they were able to attract both TV and print media coverage—including an unprecedented broadcast of the documentary on Al Arabiya—increasing the visibility of the activists.

Salome Chasnoff of Beyondmedia Education explained their media activism and justice projects. The organization offers documentary and media literacy training to community groups and underserved populations, working with them from development to distribution. “The goal of the work is not to entertain,” she said “it’s to educate the audience around an issue, and promote change around that issue.” Their filmmaking process stresses the agency and involvement of community partners. She talked about one project with the “Empowered Fe-Fe’s,” a group of young disabled women who moved from having no media experience to training others to make media. One of their films explored their sexuality as disabled women, and Chasnoff showed a clip of the young women discussing the issues they face in feeling sexy, and talking to the proprietor of a Chicago sex shop about toys and methods for sexual pleasure. Chasnoff’s organization works largely with women and queer youth, and she described another project with sex workers, who used the piece to lobby for the passage of Illinois bills related to first-time offenders, abuse and social programs. “Seeing them as experts in a movie allowed [legislators] to open their minds and their hearts,” said Chasnoff. The film won a documentary film contest in Chicago; while the prize was to have the film shown on a local public station’s showcase of independent film, the station refused to air it. A related community protest has spawned a community justice movement in Chicago, and the station also agreed to air the film in full. “There are winnable battles, and I’m happy to say we won one,” said Chasnoff.”

Giovanna Chesler of G6 Pictures and AU, spoke about her film Period: The End of Menstruation?, which examines the use of birth control for menstrual suppression. She said it was a “hard sell” for funders. Chesler talked about ways to make such topics approachable; one technique she uses is using voiceovers from interviews over images rather than confronting people with a talking head. Showing groups of people talking underscored the goal of Period to continue the conversation among friends about birth control. “Laughing with the topic was also very important,” she said. Building relationships with community partners was central to the film’s strategy; partners included Our Bodies Ourselves and The University of California San Diego.”It was rejected from every film festival I applied to,” she said. “I’m so proud of that.” But distributors understood the potential audience for the film and it sold well. Community groups used the film to host fundraising screenings and workshops. Eventually, the New York Times covered the film on its front page, and for three days it was the most blogged and emailed article on the site. “I was like, ‘I knew you wanted to talk about this,’ ” said Chesler.

Her current project, HPV Boredom (recently rebranded as “tune in HPV”), addresses narratives around the STD. For the HPV project, she is working with students on creating platforms which allow people to talk about the STDs through social networks. She says the HPV discourse has been controlled by the pharmaceutical companies; to counteract this they are making short, viral videos with odd, humorous moments to inform and engage online viewers.

Bristol Baughan of Good Magazine presented a promotional video that explains the concept of this for-profit project, which is to make “relevant content entertaining and commercial, beautiful and interesting.” The project is just entering its second year, and is also producing related documentary films and multimedia content. “We’re trying to bring a different, design-heavy feel” to documentary, said Baughan. She noted that there was definitely a generation gap in terms of what a younger audience is willing to pay to watch. Their first film, by Michael Apted, The World 2006, was about soccer around the globe; their current film examines NASCAR through the story of three racers. She says they’re still experimenting with making the films commercially viable. They are going to start focusing more on producing short online videos featuring profiles of extraordinary people.

In the Q&A the filmmakers talked about both the rise of online video, and the power of group screenings—giving audience members a next step in the moment when they’re still captured by the film’s message can be very powerful. “I don’t want to give up the face-to-face screenings,” said Bacha, “but the web allows people who can’t be in the same room to watch and talk together.” She says they are thinking about strategic ways to combine both approaches.



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