Making Movies to Change the World
When Hollywood's stars hit the red carpet for the Academy Awards on February 22, glitz and glamour — and blockbuster movies — will get the most airtime. And the whole world will be watching.
Well, not all of it. A group of women in Sudan, far removed from the bling and bright lights, will be doing something far more significant: going door to door in a quest to garner one million signatures for a petition demanding peace in their war-torn country.
Yes, there is a connection between those two paragraphs, because in a way, the former led to the latter. An award-winning movie stirred those Sudanese women to take a stand, as they had just seen others do on the big screen.
Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about how women in Liberia demanded — and ultimately achieved — peace in their own embattled nation, is one of those films that stirs not only the soul but hands and feet as well. It was one of many such movies in 2008, a year of issue-oriented documentaries that sought not just to inform but also to reform by encouraging viewers to be agents of change.
When hundreds of women from across Sudan came to Khartoum for producer Abigail E. Disney's screening of Pray the Devil, they stayed afterward for discussion. Two and a half hours later, the women had drafted a petition calling for peace in Darfur; they are now in the process of acquiring signatures.
"That's the kind of thing a film can really unlock in people," says Disney. "I believe very much in the power of film and stories, and how they can change people."
Movies like Pray the Devil don't often get much attention at the Oscars — or at the box office. But one could argue that such documentaries are the most important films in any given year because of their ability to stimulate viewers to act.
Some films start off with exactly that intent, such as Call + Response, a documentary about human trafficking whose title clearly sounds a plea for action. Other projects —Pray the Devil and As We Forgive, which depicts reconciliation efforts in Rwanda —weren't made to incite change, but ended up having a similar effect.
"That wasn't my original intention, but came as a result of people watching the film and then asking, 'What can we do?'" says Laura Waters Hinson, director of As WeForgive. "We're not trying to guilt people into action." People who usually skip the closing credits are watching them with these movies, seeking ways to respond. The films' credits typically give websites and suggestions for next steps. "Pictures speak louder than words," says Jennifer Merin, guide to About.com's section on documentaries. "Films are more likely to reach critical mass in focusing the public's attention on an important issue; they can actually influence public opinion, and that can lead to changes in public policy and practice."
"Film combines several of the art disciplines that each, in and of themselves, has the capacity to move someone," says Jeffrey Sparks, president of Heartland Truly Moving Pictures, which holds an annual film festival lauding the best of independent filmmaking, including documentaries. "But film combines them into an arsenal that is simply unmatched in its ability to evoke, enrapture, and inspire."