Documentaries and Civic Engagement: Molly Murphy on Media That Matters

by Molly Murphy

Thestaff_molly 2015 Media That Matters conference is right around the corner, so we decided to let our #MTMDC panelists to introduce themselves and explain in their own words how they engage with media that matters.

Working Films co-director, Molly Murphy uses documentary film to advance social and environmental justice and sustainability. She will be presenting at the “Media Impact Tools Showcase.”

I am a co-director at ‘Working Films,’ a fifteen-year-old national nonprofit that uses documentary media to advance social justice and environmental sustainability. We broker strategic partnerships between filmmakers, nonprofits, and issue experts, so that every time a viewer asks “What Can I Do?” we have an answer.

I strongly believe that visual media can express things that words can’t. Films and interactive media are a resource for building public understanding of issues and empathy among viewers who otherwise might not relate to situations of critical social and environmental importance.

Right now, Working Films is focused on using story-driven films and interactive media to advance organizing for solutions to climate change, dirty energy practices, and economic inequality. As states have increasingly become the battlegrounds for social and environmental issues, we have started using documentaries to strengthen civic engagement at the state and local-level.

We utilize documentary storytelling to build community participation in issues that impact people’s lives. We support coalition building by designing and coordinating collaborative film initiatives that deepen the relationships among organizations within and across issue areas. We also offer training and technical assistance to nonprofits and issue leaders to increase their capacity to use films and interactive documentary media to reach their goals. In just the last year, we’ve partnered with more than a hundred organizations to launch collaborative community engagement campaigns in North Carolina, Maine, Texas, and Tennessee. And now starting to replicate the best practices we’ve gleaned from these efforts as we expand our work to many other states this year.

Recently we started using short form documentaries, as we’ve found that shorter lengths offer more time for face-to-face information sharing, discussion, and action when the lights come up. For Example “Coal Ash Stories,” which represents our first foray into shorts, is a response to the Duke Energy coal ash spill in the Dan River in North Carolina. By identifying four short films and pairing them with issue and policy experts in cities and towns around the state, we help educate residents and draw public and political attention to the toxic impact of the disaster. Now “Coal Ash Stories” is expanding to Tennessee, Missouri, and Florida. Also we have paired the series with NYC based artist Greg Lindquist’s “Smoke & Water: A Living Painting”installation.

For me, documentaries offer a convening point for communities to come together with each other, and with issue leaders, to build solutions. Our belief in media as a powerful tool for change has been reinforced by the outcomes of our efforts over the years – from the introduction of a new line of carpeting as a result of industry leaders viewing “Blue Vinyl” to the significant rise in public opposition to fracking in North Carolina and Texas where we have worked extensively with the films “Gasland 2″ and “Split Estate.” Just a few months ago a new grassroots organization was formed by participants who came to a ‘Coal Ash Stories’ event in an area threatened by waste storage pollution. Our partner organizations credit our work for building their base of support, deepening their connections with allies, and driving them towards their goals.

I’m excited to connect with other people who are passionate about using documentaries for change. I’m very interested to explore how Working Films fits into current conversations about impact assessment, which often center on the use of one media project.

You can find out more about Working Films on our website:, and social media and on twitter @workingfilms.”

Meet Molly and other innovative media makers at the Media That Matters conference February 19-20. If you haven’t signed up yet, visit the registration page.


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