How can international nongovernmental organizations explain complex development issues — and the impact of their work in developing countries — in a way that can be easily understood by their supporters and donors?
For U.S. filmmaker Josh Rothstein, documentaries can be an important medium for this. Through the length of time involved in the filmmaking process, documentaries allow for more time to investigate the message to communicate and how it should be told.
“I think that the nature of documentary filmmaking, longer-form storytelling, is an important form and a very appropriate match for community development work and inherently with community development work there’s so much nuance,” Rothstein told Devex. “With shorter-form advertising, shorter-form spots or social media, you’re going to get an overview or you’re going get some sort of quick hits, but you’re not going to be able to fall into the storytelling component and ultimately get the sense that the audience would get.”
And Dale Amtsberg, manager of World Vision Australia’s ambassador program, agrees. When the international NGO began a project to capture its work in Ethiopia five years ago, it tapped Rothstein and World Vision ambassadors Hugh Jackman and Deborra-Lee Furness to help tell its story. The result was the documentary “Dukale’s Dream.”
“The long-form format allows you to tell a more complex and nuanced story,” he told Devex. “You don’t have to speed up the narrative like you might for a TV commercial.”
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“Dukale’s Dream” shows Jackman and Furness’ journey and understanding of the value of fair trade coffee, starting from the time they met a coffee farmer named Dukale. It set Jackman on a journey that led him to develop his own fair trade coffee brand, set up the Laughing Man Foundation and speak at the United Nations on behalf of Dukale and other coffee farmers like him.
The film tracked the progress not just of Dukale but also the evolution of Laughing Man.
“People have been very supportive,” Amtsberg said. “The film talks about the complexities of community development and fair trade, as well as the shifting paradigm of aid over the past 40 years. People have responded to the clear actions you can take to support the message of the film, such as buying fair trade coffee. Perhaps most interestingly, we have seen the film give existing supporters of World Vision a new understanding and energy for our work.”
An outsider’s perspective
World Vision believed it was important to give the filmmakers freedom to tell the story from the perspective of an outsider — the same as the audience they are targeting.
“We wanted ‘Dukale’s Dream’ to be something different to what people expect from NGO communications,” Amtsberg said.
Rothstein entered production with a limited understanding of the work World Vision did.
“I’m not part of the NGO world so many of these concepts were brand new to me,” he said. “World Vision was receptive to that and I think ultimately they were fantastic partners in terms of our balance that we played throughout the entire film.”
But, of course, the NGO has final say on the film.
“World Vision is the executive producer of the film and owns all copyright,” Amtsberg told Devex. “We were involved throughout the production and post-production process and retained final cut approval. It was important we allowed the filmmakers the space to tell a compelling story but maintain the World Vision elements of the film.”
Plan ‘end to end’
With documentaries there are, of course, the ups and downs of filming in remote localities and dedication involved in such a long journey.
“Shooting, attempting to make a documentary of course in very rural parts of the planet are always very challenging,” Rothstein said.
But despite challenges, it is a leap many NGOs might want to consider taking.
“More and more, NGOs need to find compelling ways to tell the story of their work and reach new audiences,” Amtsberg told Devex, stressing the great potential for NGOs to expand their donor base. “There are more ways than ever for documentaries to find an audience — festivals, broadcast, video on demand, engaging existing supporters.”
Internally within an NGO, planning five years ahead can be difficult with such a large-scale project. But Amtsberg said good planning will lead to success.
“Plan it end to end before you start production,” he advised. “You need a release strategy from the start so you can tailor the film to suit your target audience. It can take significant internal resources for an NGO to produce a documentary, so you need to plan your return on investment from the outset.”
But flexibility and an open mind are needed as well.
“Hugh said, ‘You always have to keep open the window of opportunity to open it back up, to be receptive to the idea that there is a larger story and a more powerful message to communicate,’” Rothstein told Devex. “So, that’s both the most fantastic thing that you could have and want as a documentary filmmaker, but it’s also the most challenging because you have no control over the circumstances — it’s just the great unknown.”
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