Can documentaries help us to tell a different story about development?

Published on 24 June 2016

Can documentaries help us to tell a different story about global development? This was the title of a panel debate that I chaired at the Institute of Development Studies in June. As a former documentary producer who now runs a charity dedicated to promoting media coverage of development, this is a topic close to my heart. It was a surprisingly animated event with an audience of documentary makers, academics and students, all expressing strong opinions on the topic.

We were lucky to have a multi award winning filmmaker on the panel. Jezza Neuman from True Vision took us through his own methodology of making a documentary. Whether the film is about the lives of children in a refugee camp or people with drug resistant TB, the key for him is to find strong and engaging characters and to concentrate on the human story. Narrative is crucial as that is what keeps an audience watching. But of course Jezza is making films for prime time TV that he hopes will appeal to a mass audience. His films have been screened on Channel 4, BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4. Others on the panel and in the audience spoke about their own involvement in making a range of documentaries, including participatory video. Jackie Shaw emphasised that integral to storytelling should be the empowerment of participants to tell and own their stories and that their involvement in the process itself is incredibly important.

For me, two key issues emerged, concerning impact and audiences. It’s clear that we need to interrogate our assumptions and develop a much more nuanced understanding of both. Why do we make these documentary films in the first place? What kinds of impact are we hoping to achieve? Who is watching? Are we adopting the right approach in order to engage a range of audiences? Jezza Neumann’s assumption that a strong, evolving narrative is the key to winning an audience was challenged by some audience members. The implicit assumption that a large audience is the same as having an impact was questioned. For Jezza, showing the film is only the beginning. He works with others, including NGOs, to ensure that his films reach influential audiences and continue to have an impact well after transmission. He organises screenings with policymakers. But at the same time, Jezza was clear that, when he embarks on a film or persuades a contributor to take part in filming, he cannot guarantee the film will have an impact.

If academics are to work with filmmakers to reach mass audiences there will always be a degree of risk. The film may not turn out as planned or it may not have the impact which was promised. In order to mitigate the risk, academics can ask more questions of filmmakers and help them to tell more nuanced stories. The two panellists with direct experience of working with documentary makers, James Georgalakis and Sophie Robinson, were both in agreement, that the benefits of engagement with media outweigh the risks. James Georgalakis (Director of Communications and Impact at IDS) and Sophie Robinson (External Affairs Officer at IDS) both cited examples where documentaries they had worked on promoted awareness of an underreported issue.

But it was another panellist, Keetie Roelen (Co-Director of the Centre for Social Protection at IDS) who gave the most provocative example of collaborating with a documentary team. She was contacted by producers working on a documentary on the subject of poverty in the UK. They said that they planned to make direct comparisons between the use of social protection measures – specifically cash transfers – in developing countries and the use of the same method for lifting people out of poverty in the UK in the form of a televised social experiment. Keetie emphasised that, as a researcher, her concern was that she had little control over how her input would or would not be taken into account or the extent to which the programme would provide a fair representation of the experiment and the people participating in it or feed into ‘poverty porn’. One lesson from Keetie’s experience is that academics who work with documentary makers should ask more questions about the content of the show, the working title and the channel on which it will be shown.

A key learning for me, from this discussion, is the importance of differentiation. We need to think more carefully about the needs of different audiences and the opportunities presented by a whole range of genres of documentary. Mainstream TV documentaries have their place but there is also a place for many other types of documentary.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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