Social Issue Documentary: The Evolution of Public Engagement


Report by:

Barbara Abrash, Teacher, Curator and Independent Producer


Already practiced in partnering for impact—with activist organizations, nonprofit groups, and public broadcasters—social issue documentarians are now moving to a new level of civic engagement. Reaching “beyond the choir” and across borders of opinion, they are developing digital tools to attract, engage and mobilize increasingly diverse publics.

Documentary films are serving as the core for innovative spaces and practices that mark a new kind of public media – accessible, participatory and inclusive. As the case studies below demonstrate, digital technologies do not replace, but are closely entwined with, longstanding on-the-ground activities of stakeholders and citizens working for social change.

Projects like these forge new tools, pipelines, and circuits of circulation in a multiplatform media environment. They help to create sustainable network infrastructures for participatory public media that extend from local communities to transnational circuits and from grassroots communities to policy makers. This work is made possible by a dynamic but fragile support web of broadcasters, funders, nonprofit groups, service organizations, and citizens—all contributors to an emergent “public media 2.0,” which aims to enable publics to recognize and understand the problems they share, to know each other, and to act.

What is the sustainability of this work? How can we measure its effectiveness and impact? Those are important questions waiting to be addressed.

This report presents case studies of three social issue documentary projects that demonstrate how strategic outreach campaigns are enabling publics to form around social and political issues of shared concern. They use digital technologies for production, distribution, archiving, and social networking; to promote civic engagement, and to provide tools for grassroots, national, and international networks. They are, in short, laboratories for the public media of the future.

•   “Not in Our Town” (NIOT) is a documentary about positive community responses to hate violence that triggered a movement. The evolution of this project demonstrates how a documentary about the experience of one small city inspired cities and towns across the U.S. to adapt the NIOT model to local circumstances, and led to a loosely-structured alliance slated to become a sustainable virtual community.

•   “Lioness” brings to light the experiences of U.S. military women engaged in ground combat in Iraq, with a goal of opening military-civilian dialog about the shifting role of women in post-Cold War conflicts and the need for new policies and services. In alliance with veterans’ groups and other advocates for increased support for returning women combat veterans, the filmmakers are reframing issues of gender equity in the military, providing important tools for policymakers and service providers, and contributing to public policy debates.

•   “State of Fear” traces the quest for restorative justice in Peru through the work of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Relating the process by which the rule of law is being restored in a country whose government destroyed human rights in the name of a “war on terrorism,” this film has resonated in countries around the world. A multipronged outreach campaign and creative adaptations of accessible digital technologies have extended the reach and uses of the film in contexts that range from remote villages to international NGOs. The quality and effectiveness of the project has inspired an international justice media initiative.

The success of these award-winning films reflects:

•   a keen awareness of potential audiences and how to reach them;

•   well-developed strategic outreach plans based on alliances with stakeholders;

•   the provision of resources for citizens, educators and activists, and

•   the creative and appropriate uses of digital technologies.









“Not in Our Town”

The Working Group, Patrice O’Neill, Executive Director

NIOT was born with the web. Our next frontier is Web 3.0, with a groundbreaking online civic engagement site—Patrice O’Neill

Not in Our Town demonstrates one arc of opportunity for a socially-engaged documentary film. The project began with a PBS broadcast, inspired hundreds of locally-based initiatives, and is currently building a social networking site to sustain a virtual community.

Originally broadcast in 1995 as a 30-minute PBS special, Not in Our Town I told how the people of Billings, Montana— grassroots activists, elected officials, schools, unions, newspapers, and churches—came together in response to racist assaults on Native American, African American, and Jewish residents to create an initiative that continues as part of the civic life of that city.

The 1995 broadcast, which was accompanied by an outreach campaign in partnership with progressive news site AlterNet and the Benton Foundation and participation by labor and constituency organizations, had an enthusiastic reception. It was followed in 1996 with a PBS broadcast of Not in Our Town 2, which featured six communities responding creatively to hate violence. In Columbus, Ohio, state office workers responded to an annual KKK cross-burning in front of the state capitol by declaring “Silence is Acceptance” and organizing a Not in Our Agency campaign. When the KKK came to Kokomo Indiana and claimed the right to stage a public rally, citizens recognized their First Amendment right to do so, but drew a larger crowd with a counter-event in the city park. A group in Bloomington, Illinois, travelled to the South to help rebuild African American churches destroyed by arson.

Over the next ten years, communities across the country, faced with racial, ethnic and gender-based hate violence, were inspired to adapt the NIOT model of positive citizen action to their local situations. Barbara Holiday, a viewer in Vermont, is one of many when she says, “NIOT addresses problems that are root issues in Vermont. The PBS broadcast legitimizes people who are willing to open their minds, and it has a message of hope.”

Storytelling is key to the effectiveness of NIOT films. Executive Director Patrice O’Neill says: “We explicitly want to empower people through storytelling. The narrative that drives our programs is how communities strengthen themselves in the face of hate and intolerance.” For O’Neill, it isn’t the crime that is the hook, but how “ordinary citizens” come together to find positive solutions to shared problems. “It allows viewers to imagine their own potential,” she says. The films are accompanied by toolkits with strategies for mounting press campaigns, involving city officials, and staging public events that promote dialogue and community solidarity. These tools engage publics by showcasing the actions and successes of engaged citizens.

As O’Neill points out, it’s not all smooth sailing. She says, “Lack of funding for film and media is not just a stumbling block for social action media makers, it is often a brick wall. But there are other obstacles we faced with Not In Our Town that we were able to overcome:”

Two challenges stand out: balancing the line between journalism and advocacy; and allowing communities to take ideas wherever they need to go, while holding on to their own values, standards, and priorities. O’Neill comments, “Journalistic standards and fair reporting are core values for us. Not In Our Town is fostered by journalists and storytellers working together with community leaders to encourage social action and civic engagement.”

By 2002, the small but dedicated NIOT team was stretching its scarce resources to serve as an ad-hoc resource center for the dispersed but growing anti-hate violence movement. This spontaneous movement was producing remarkable examples of democracy at work, but it lacked infrastructure. The filmmakers faced a conundrum: How to capture the potential of the work and ensure the sustainability of this informal network? They decided to identify as many NIOT projects as possible and invite their leaders to come together to share stories and strategies and consider a sustainable future.

In 2006, more than 120 civic leaders—including young people and representatives of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Facing History and Ourselves, and People for the American Way—convened in Bloomington, Illinois. Participants in the National Gathering, which was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation; Carnegie Corporation; and State Farm Insurance, found common challenges and purposes and agreed on the need for a sustainable national support organization, anchored by a social networking website.

This vision is becoming a reality with, which was incubated at the 2007 Bay Area Video Coalition’s (BAVC) Producers’ Institute for New Media. Through BAVC, will be hosted on the fiber optic network of National Public Lightpath where NIOT’s new technology tools and high resolution videos will be made available to schools, universities and non-profit organizations as an active application and demonstration.

According to BAVC creative director, Wendy Levy:

NIOT will be a leading example of how long-form media [and] community engagement can evolve on a massive scale, both asynchronously and in real time. I would like to see all long-form stories broadcast, along with interactive games/maps/and networks for deeper engagement.

NIOT is extending its reach in real space, as well. Partner organization Facing History and Ourselves (FHO) has produced curriculum materials that are used in schools across the country. FHO has also chosen NIOT as one of three stories featured in Choosing to Participate, an interactive multimedia travelling exhibition that features stories about positive responses to hate crimes. The exhibition itself has become a site of experimentation: it will soon include an interactive map with locative media to gather and access stories from around the country.

NIOT is an example of how a social issue documentary film project can enjoy a long life. Chuck Tooley, Acting Mayor of Billings in 1995, notes that a younger generation is taking NIOT forward in a changing city. “Film is enduring,” he says. “It tells a story that can be repeated and understood in new ways.”

Finally, NIOT is a project that resonates internationally, in communities which see their own stories and possibilities for community strength in these films:

•   Not in Our Town Ukraine was started by members of Project Kesher—a group of Jewish women who were alarmed by the rise of xenophobia in Russia and the former Soviet Socialist Republics—in partnership with the All-Ukrainian Interethnic Women’s Confederation.

•   FHO presented NIOT at a 3-day teacher’s workshop in South Africa, following attacks on immigrants from Zimbabwe and other neighboring countries.

•   In response to hate violence against immigrant workers, residents of a town in Northern Ireland screened Not in Our Town in a local church and found parallels with their own situation.

Lessons learned

•   Social issue documentary films with strategies for action can model effective citizen responses to behaviors that threaten civic life, and inspire creative adaptations.

•   Empathetic stories that emphasize the creative potential of ordinary citizens provide access points for discussion and emulation.

•   The advantage of ad-hoc networks is their flexibility and adaptability; the downside is the difficulty of knowledge building and sustainability.

•   Maps and other locative media tools can help to knit together diverse but allied initiatives.

Circuits of circulation

•   Community and professional screenings

•   Multiple TV broadcasts

•   Outreach through media and nonprofit partnerships

•   Educational distribution with auxiliary materials

•   Social media tools

•   Maps and locative media

•   Exhibitions




Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers, 2008 (82 min)

Photo by Lloyd Francis, Jr.

We want to put names and faces on the changing role that females are playing in the U.S. military today—Daria Sommers

Lioness demonstrates how a documentary film conceived as part of a strategic campaign, created public awareness about the shifting role of women in the military, sparked conversation across military-civilian divides, and contributed to an emerging movement for gender equity for women combat veterans.

The film follows five members of “Team Lioness,” a group of female soldiers who were sent to Iraq as support troops in 2003 and became the first American service women to be sent into direct ground combat, in violation of Department of Defense policy. The women speak of what they experienced, first on the frontlines and then when they returned home as members of the first generation of American combat veterans.

Sent to Iraq as mechanics, cooks, and clerks, these women accompanied male units on raids and patrols, assigned to search for and pacify women and children, and gather intelligence. Given the uncertain boundaries of counterinsurgency battles, members of Team Lioness found themselves involved in close urban combat for which they had received no training. And because of their officially unacknowledged status, they found themselves denied the recognition received by their male counterparts. Co-director Meg McLagan says, “We wanted to create a space within the national cultural dialogue for these women’s voices to be heard.”

The filmmakers’ interest in the subject was piqued when they began to see military women in news reports about the war in Iraq—women like Lynndie England, who was seen in lurid pictures of Abu Ghraib and Jessica Lynch, who spoke up when the government misrepresented the story of her treatment by Iraqi captors. They did not start with a particular point of view about women in combat, but set out to learn more.

The great challenge was to meet and talk with active duty servicewomen. The first step was to get permission from the U.S. Army Public Affairs Office in Los Angeles. Five months after writing a letter describing themselves and their intentions, they were granted permission to meet and interview the women at Ft. Riley, Kansas. This opened access to their subjects, which the filmmakers reinforced by making it clear that they wanted to understand the women’s’ experiences in Iraq, rather than using their stories to make an argument about whether or not women should be in combat. The task was to earn the trust of women soldiers whose life circumstances and concerns are quite unfamiliar to those outside the military. “We did this,” says McLagan, “by listening.”

The production of Lioness was accompanied by a strategic communications and outreach design which was supported by the Fledgling Fund and Chicken & Egg Pictures, major funders of the film.

The filmmakers aimed to reach the general public, military constituencies, and advocates for policy change; and they declared four goals:

•   Frame the issue for the press to inform crucial debates;

•   Leverage the film festival launch with events, panels, and publicity;

•   Establish partnerships with veteran service organizations; and

•   Support the emerging network of grassroots and national organizations advocating for services, support and recognition for active duty women and female veterans.

Lioness had its world premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London in March 2008. The U.S. premiere took place at the Full Frame Film Festival in April, where it won the Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award, followed by screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival and New York Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. National broadcast on ITVS’ Independent Lens, on November 13, 2008, was propelled by a publicity campaign that garnered high-profile radio, television and press coverage.

ITVS has continued to play a significant role. In collaboration with Lioness outreach partners, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and the American Legion Auxiliary, the ITVS Community Cinema series has sponsored 50 screenings attended by more than 2,000 people. Independent Lens also maintains a Lioness website with background information; excerpts from diaries and letters; and a lively “Talk Back” section. Viewers logged on to express their admiration for the women and concern for their well-being. They also questioned whether women should serve in combat, and some even asked, “what’s next?” A November 17, 2008 entry from “Donald” reads,

As touched as I was, I found myself w/the conundrum of ‘what can I do?’. I truly wish they had offered an avenue to those of us who care and are willing to press on our Congressmen & Senators to make these changes in the law to protect all our military forces in war zones, or at least some ideas workable options that might resolve this shameful & dangerous oversight.

McLagan responds,

Given the newness of the phenomenon of women in combat, our first concern has been to use the film to simply to raise public awareness about what women are being asked to do in Iraq and to get people thinking about what their needs are going to be when they come back. Clear and meaningful channels of action that viewers can take are only now beginning to emerge as a new administration and new Congress comes into office, priorities shift, and the realities of life post-Iraq start to get addressed. This information will be added as we build out our website.

The film has travelled the international film festival circuit, and is part of the Human Rights Watch high school program. In partnership with the DAV, Center for Women Veterans, and American Legion Auxiliary—and the crucial cooperation of Public Affairs Officers on military bases—the film is touring to military bases, cities with large populations of women veterans, and universities. The community dialogues that follow screenings will be archived and made available as podcasts.

Lioness has been welcomed by an emerging network of advocates for women veterans working both for policy changes and improved services and support. A screening at the 2008 National Summit on Women Veterans Issues introduced the film to more than 400 women veteran program managers from across the country.

Professional health care providers to veterans working in programs designed for male soldiers are hungry for materials appropriate to women returning from combat. Meg McLagan says, “That’s when the film came to life. They saw how to use it!” Since then, Lioness has screened at state-wide women veterans conferences, town hall meetings, and veterans facilities across the country—events which frequently include Lionesses from the film who participate in post-screening discussions.

Policy making may be the area in which Lioness will have the greatest long- term impact. As Congress prepares for debates on the changing roles of women in the military, the filmmakers have organized policy-related screenings and connected with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. A group of Congresswomen are sponsoring a screening of the film as part of an upcoming one-day event co-sponsored by DAV and ITVS to highlight pending legislation that will entitle women to the same benefits received by male combat veterans. The filmmakers anticipate that the Lioness women might be called to testify at those hearings.

As first-phase initiatives evolve, the filmmakers are turning their attention to multiplatform distribution, social networking and educational modules—all of which will be informed by what the filmmakers have learned from their publics in these early phases.

Lessons learned

•   Documentary films embedded in well-developed strategic outreach campaigns can foster public conversation on complex issues across divides of opinion and experience.

•   Targeted screenings to policymakers and affected publics can amplify impact.

•   Partnerships give legitimacy and open access to diverse audiences. They can fortify emerging advocacy networks and help build frameworks for long term public conversation and action.

Circuits of circulation

•   International human rights festivals

•   Community screenings

•   TV broadcast

•   DVD distribution

•   Professional conferences and sites

•   Media and nonprofit partnerships

•   Educational distribution with auxiliary materials

•   Policy-making venues


“State of Fear: The Truth About Terrorism”

Pamela Yates, Paco de Onis, Peter Kinoy, 2005 (90 minutes)

The process of a nation’s dealing with the past is intimately bound up with the understanding of themselves carried in their culture, and film and television are bound up with that culture—Paul Van Zyl, Vice President, International Center for Transitional Justice.

State of Fear, which received the 2006 Overseas Press Club Award for “best reporting in any medium on Latin America,” demonstrates how the creative deployment of digital technologies can produce a multiplatform, multilingual outreach campaign that engages international and local audiences, provides tools for human rights advocacy, and creates spaces and language for public discourse in diverse cultures. Its example has inspired a far-reaching international justice media initiative.

The film is a production of Skylight Pictures, seasoned producers of films on human rights issues who worked closely with the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ). Based on the findings of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, State of Fear shows the process by which President Alberto Fujimori manipulated public fears of the Shining Path terrorist group to suspend civil liberties and establish state terrorism, and the quest on the part of Peruvians for restorative justice.

During the process of production and editing, Skylight Pictures solicited input from the community of human rights activists assembled by the ICTJ—a public already activated by a shared concern. This feedback shaped a strategic multiplatform, international outreach campaign, designed to reach general audiences and educational venues, and to support democracy and advocacy initiatives in Peru and internationally over a period of three years.

State of Fear—released in Spanish and English versions—premiered at the New York International Human Rights Watch Festival (co-sponsored by the ICTJ) in 2005, and travelled human rights festival circuits in the U.S., Europe and Latin America. It also had an extensive international broadcast when it launched a new National Geographic International Channel (NGIC) series, No Borders – for which the film was translated into 48 languages and broadcast to 157 countries and 198 million homes. It also aired on the History Channel en Español and the Sundance Channel, and has been widely broadcast in Peru and Chile, where it played a significant role in the movement to return Fujimori for trial.

The story resonates in many countries. Hundreds of DVDs were circulated by the Nepalese democracy movement, and the film has triggered discussion in Russia, Morocco, Turkey, the U.S., and other countries which see situations analogous to their own.

The filmmakers are early and eager adapters of technologies, from mini-DV cameras and Final Cut Pro to Twitter, SMS, YouTube, Google-mapping, Picasso, and advanced social networking sites. Experiments with digital delivery are underway via, a nonprofit organization based in Seattle and funded by Microsoft and Hitachi, the mission of which is to deliver educational media online.

The Andean outreach initiative shows how many different kinds of available technologies have been adapted in the service of civic engagement. In August 2008, the filmmakers brought the Quechua language version of the film to Andean villages that had suffered human rights violations. With the support of a Sundance Documentary Fund Audience Engagement grant, public screenings took place in plazas and villages, encouraging local communities to take ownership of the film and their own history. In a politically tumultuous time, when government officials are denying complicity in past crimes and the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission has put forward a reparations plan for victims, these screenings have sparked lively discussion.

Using Flip video cameras provided by the filmmakers, Quechua Indians are uploading their own testimonies on Estado de Miedo (EDMQ), a Quechua-language website produced by Skylight that was launched as the Fujimori trial began. These commentaries will be archived and become part of a database of those eligible for reparations. The National Coordinator of Human Rights has distributed 200 DVDs and teaching guides through its 67 member organizations, and with the approval of the filmmakers, who have adopted a “copyleft” policy. Local human rights groups have burned over 300 DVDs at the request of local citizens who need only provide a blank disk.

State of Fear was a testing ground that demonstrated the ways in which a documentary film embedded in a strategic outreach campaign can reach and mobilize publics and serve human rights advocacy initiatives. It inspired the ICTJ to establish a production unit and international justice social networking site, incorporating innovations developed for the film and taking them forward. Skylight Pictures, in partnership with the ICTJ, recently completed The Reckoning, a film about the International Criminal Court premiering at the Sundance Film Festival.

Lessons learned

•   Accessible digital technologies adapted in targeted and culturally appropriate ways enhance the reach and uses of social issue documentary.

•   Understand the networks of your partners, and tailor media to the needs of those networks.

•   It is important to identify primary partners and their related circuits of circulation, in order to reach multiple publics and to enrich those circuits with effective tools.

•   A strategically designed media project can serve as a laboratory for experimental applications of digital technologies.

Circuits of circulation

•   International film festivals

•   Human rights organizations

•   Community screenings in multiple countries

•   Educational distribution

•   DVDs (sold and distributed free)

•   International television broadcasts

•   Social media sites

•   Teaching guides

•   Locative media


LionessNIOT, and State of Fear are examples of how documentary films not only provide trusted information about thorny issues, they tell stories that frame and give human meaning to those issues and provide language for debate across boundaries of difference. These projects reveal how filmmakers are using innovative spaces and practices to build upon established resources, and incorporating a sustained focus on outreach, engagement and public inclusion into their primary focus on production and distribution.

Social issue documentarians are sustained by a fragile but effective support network of mission-driven distributors, service organizations, festivals, broadcasters, funders and nonprofit organizations dedicated to the public interest. These case studies identify some of the hubs in the circuits of production and circulation that characterize these independent film support networks. Digital technologies have the potential to both strengthen and transform the field—creating a participatory, networked environment for public dialogue and action that is helping to shape public media 2.0.