Christiaan Van Vuuren in front of Parliament House in 'Big Deal'. (Photo: Jake Snape/ABC)

Traditional distribution pathways may have been upended by COVID-19, but in some ways, the pandemic has strengthened the landscape for social impact documentary.

That’s according to Leeanne Torpey, Jungle Entertainment’s communications and impact manager, who has led the impact campaign for the company’s doco Big Deal, about the influence of money on politics.

“Community connections are becoming more important. And if [a project] is addressing a real need in the community, then an audience is going to exist passionately whether or not it’s convenient to get to the cinema,” she tells IF.

Big Deal, directed by Craig Reucassel and presented by Christiaan Van Vuuren, marks Jungle’s first social impact documentary. Aline Jacques produces, while executive producers include Jason Burrows, Jen Peedom, Bridget Callow-Wright, Malinda Wink, and Paul Wiegard.

The project follows Van Vuuren as he meets with a host of prominent parliamentary and media figures to understand Australia’s billion-dollar political lobbying industry. The associated impact campaign aims to get people to feel empowered to participate in the democratic process.

The project has had a theatrical release via Madman Entertainment, and will start airing tonight on the ABC as a two-parter.

“It’s a social justice-driven campaign,” Torpey says.

Dark money is a really hard issue to actually see… It is shocking to hear about the way things happen behind closed doors that really impact on our lives. The campaign not only makes it easy for people understand how democracy actually impacts their every day, but then what they can do to change it.

“We’re really asking people to get involved, to know who their member is, to speak with people in their local communities and start organising about things that they care about to make a difference – instead of always waiting for our political system to just reform itself. It’s time to give that power back to the people.

Big Deal was one of six social impact documentaries to receive funding via the Shark Island Institute Story Development and Impact Lab. Torpey further developed the campaign via Doc Society’s inaugural Global Impact Lab, as one of just two Australian participants.

The theatrical release and the ABC broadcast have had slightly different associated strategies; aligned in aims, but targeting different audiences. While the theatrical campaign was curated, and focused on audiences who typically watch documentaries, the hope is to utilise the ABC’s reach to leverage a broader national conversation.

The team have developed a website, makeitabigdeal.org, through which people can sign up to the ‘anti-lobby lobby’ organised by the film’s main campaign partner, The Australian Democracy Network; write to their MP; host their own watch parties, or download education resources.

ABC executive producer impact and partnerships, factual Teri Calder tells IF the broadcaster gets involved in impact campaigns when a project touches on an issue that reflects its charter, and faces all Australians; the health of our national democracy fits within this.

The ABC aligned its goals with Jungle’s, while using its network to amplify the message. The series has also been cross-promoted; Reucassel was on Q&A last week to discuss ‘big money and politics’.

“We’ve partnered with ABC Education internally to create some materials to support the impact campaign. My team have created with Craig some bespoke content to go out on social. And we’ve created an iview watch party guide. Friends and family can get together and use this guide; has conversation starters and ways to engage,” Calder says.

One of the bespoke pieces of social content created by the ABC in support of the social impact campaign.

Having recognisable comedic talent in Reucassel and Van Vuuren helped to push the campaign forward, as did Reucassel’s reputation from projects like War on Waste and Fight for Planet A.

“Jungle obviously specialises in comedy. So we were always going to come at this with a comedic lens,” Torpey says.

“It’s really needed, because some of the stuff in the documentary is quite serious and has serious implications for all of our lives, so being fed that in a way that’s fun and entertaining whilst meaningful, it’s the right balance of light and dark.”

Opportunities to create are something Jungle is increasingly looking to explore in its work where appropriate, reflected in Torpey’s appointment as an in-house impact manager. Drama Wakefield, for instance, had an associated social impact campaign around mental health that went beyond a traditional promotional campaign.

Torpey brings to her role not only a background in journalism, marketing and communications, but also in advocacy work, having previously co-ordinated the Global Campaign to End Immigration Detention of Children.

“I loved advocacy work, but I did miss storytelling. So impact producing is actually the bringing together of those two worlds for me.

“I’d always thought that, in advocacy, you get stuck in this policy space and it can be quite hard to really change hearts and minds. But documentaries do that so well.

Big Deal airs tonight on the ABC 8.30pm.

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