Documentaries are known for their potential to affect social change, but at what point does a cause begin to dictate the way a story is told?
The place of impact producing in factual content was referenced at multiple points throughout this week’s Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC), most notably as part of a session entitled ‘Is Impact Still Relevant?’.
The reflective discussion brought together Engage Media co-founder and executive director Andrew Lowenthal, with Hollie Fifer, director of the investigative documentary The Opposition.
At the centre of their conversation was the role of ‘impact’ as an advocacy tool and its influence on the filmmaking process.
Lowenthal’s company is in the midst of exploring the concept with filmmakers across the Asia Pacific as part of an Impact Lab for environmental video initiatives.
He said while still relevant, the genre had been around long enough to allow a discussion about where it can fall short.
“There’s a limit in recognising it can’t do everything,” he said.
“It’s valid if your main objective in producing a film is to make a certain type of change in the world. But one of the pitfalls is you may end up with a less nuanced story, because nuance is going to make people think and be reflective instead of getting people ready for action.
“It’s more about teasing out when it is the right tool.”
Fifer said her understanding of the concept had been challenged through seeing the work of other directors.
“I was taught that film is first and then the impact goes around that,” she said.
“That’s still true, but I’ve seen filmmakers change their edit according to the impact they want the film to have, or change a scene because it might actually be detrimental to the impact, as if their character couldn’t have that vulnerability or flaw.”
For The Opposition, Fifer detailed the plight of Joe Moses, a community leader of the Paga Hill settlement in Port Moresby, which was demolished in 2012 to make way for an Australian backed development project.
After filming the demolition for the project, she became embroiled in a legal stoush with former Papuan New Guinean politician Dame Carol Kidu, who successfully applied for an injunction to stop parts of the film being screened at Canada’s HotDocs Festival in 2016.
A recut version of the film had its Australian premiere on the opening night of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, with The Supreme Court of New South Wales dismissing a permanent injunction.
Fifer said the experience had shown her the potential of co-creation within impact producing.
“One thing that was important for us was that Joe, who was the protagonist and community leader, had to become the spokesperson,” she said.
“His voice was the most important and as the documentary gained more recognition and power, it really had to be Joe that wsa leading that campaign.
“People who have done more co-creation work have really grown on these ideas.
“The bit that really excites me about impact is the co-creation with communities and having impact strategy workshops, where you can say, ‘This is for the benefit of whatever it is you are striving for, and not about the filmmakers’.”
She added that while she had initially intended to shame the company at the centre of the demolition, it had not proven effective.
“Half of our impact campaign was about shaming a company to correct what we saw as a human rights abuse that we documented on camera,” she said.
“But shame can’t be used as a social tool.
“If I could have done it again, I would have definitely changed that.”