One Size Does Not Fit All: Different Stories Foster Different Types of Engagement

It doesn’t matter how well-made those high-heeled shoes are—they’re probably not the best choice if you’re hoping to go on a long run. Similarly, it is wrong to assume you can make the same engagement strategy work for every film.

After more than a decade using story to support meaningful social change at Active Voice, we couldn’t agree more with Fledgling Fund’s Emily Verellen who points out the distinction between “outreach” and “engagement” in her recent #artsENGAGE blog post about using film to support social action. Simply getting the film out there—even among the right stakeholders—is just not enough.

Equally noteworthy is the fact that while engagement is a vitally important step in the process towards positive social change, it is not necessarily an end to itself.

Not all films are built alike. Each has a different set of strengths, and every social issue has a different set of constraints. Not to mention that diverse audiences engage with films and issues in a variety of ways. So a beautifully crafted story, like any art that holds the power to move people, deserves a custom engagement strategy — if using it to support change is the goal. If it is, then it’s useful to define the purpose and terms of the engagement.

Take the example of Kim A. Snyder’s 2009 documentary Welcome to Shelbyville. Beverly, one of the film’s main characters, is a straight-talking resident of the small Tennessee town. She, like some other residents there, is doing her best to remain open to building more harmonious relationships with newcomers from Muslim-majority countries in the face of media-inflamed fears. In one scene, Beverly joins her Somali neighbors for a meal and asks: “It’s just scary to me because there are Somalians here—you know—and I don’t want them to start blowing up anything… that won’t happen, will it?” The moment is tense and complicated as Beverley clumsily attempts to address her fears honestly, cautiously and with great care. Her new friends respond with similarly careful candor. Watch the scene below. If you’re watching with friends, consider downloading “Hawo’s Dinner Recipe and Discussion Guide” to lead conversation around how the film can be used to encourage welcoming communities.

Storytelling like this can be transformative. Because likeable characters like Beverly, who gives voice to the kinds of concerns that people in the U.S. have about new immigrants, provide a pathway for new audiences to enter into conversations that previously excluded them. Active Voice built a specific and customized campaign that built on the film’s ability to expand the conversation and used the film to help people “in the middle” have a safe space for honest dialogue in an otherwise polarized immigration debate. We brought the film to small towns just like Shelbyville, and used it to help people like Beverly feel empowered to participate in problem solving toward building more welcoming communities.

Films like Welcome to Shelbyville are effective at shedding light on structural issues because they tell a complex and more nuanced story that helps audience members to place themselves into the bigger picture.The Visitor was another film that did this well by telling a story about hard-hitting issues, like due process, detention and deportation of refugees and immigrants in the United States, with a lighter touch.

HTHFJVideoThe Have You Heard from Johannesburg series about the global movement to end apartheid in South Africa however (by Connie Field) was a little different. By connecting the dots between issues, events, activities, and people over a thirty-year period, it was able to demonstrate change over time, draw connections between diverse communities and inspire movement building. In fact, 60+ pre-broadcast screenings prompted people of faith, athletes, businesses and youth to connect with human rights and civic issues more directly. Like the Shelbyville Multimedia campaign, the story was able to pull different audiences into an uncommon but shared conversation.

Some films lead by example. A Doula Story inspired audiences to replicate an innovative new program addressing teen pregnancy because it was an immersive story that allowed viewers to walk in the shoes of characters like Loretha (read more about this campaign in Active Voice Executive Director Shaady Salehi’s recent blog post). Similarly, a film like Greensboro: Closer to the Truth by Adam Zucker, which dives deep into a truth and reconciliation process, helped six communities consider how the model could be adapted to address conflict in their own communities.

Still other films are particularly effective at driving audiences towards specific calls-to-action. Made in L.A. by Almudena Carracedo for example, helped to put a human face on immigrant worker rights and mobilized people to get involved in putting an end to sweatshops. And Fixing the Future by John Siceloff was better at harnessing the energy of a core audience—in this case toward creating sustainable, local economies.

One type of film is not necessarily better than the other, but each benefits from a plan that is thoughtful, deliberate and takes into account the opportunities that story alone can open up.

“Why does engagement matter?” asked Ashley Weinard in her inaugural artsENGAGE blog post.

This thought-provoking question is timely as more and more filmmakers and funders zero-in on where film fits in the landscape of social change. Let’s face it; there is no cookie-cutter approach when it comes to film-based engagement. Filmmakers, funders and strategic users of story need to think carefully about the kind of film they have, what they can realistically accomplish, and the type of engagement plan that will help get them there.

Written by Program Director Sahar Driver.

This post was originally published on May 3, 2013 on NAMAC’s artsENGAGE blog.