Campaigning documentaries might have fallen out of fashion, but movies can still change the world

The Puma Creative Impact Awards celebrates documentaries by measuring their effect in the real world. Will Chasing Ice, out this week, make the grade?

Share
Related Topics

Seeing is believing. This is the defining principle behind all cinema, but particularly documentaries and particularly the documentary Chasing Ice out this week. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, the film allows viewers to witness the pace at which the polar ice caps are melting, by tagging along with photographer/conservationist hero James Balog as he documents this terrifying transformation.

But how do you make a film that’s literally about watching ice melt compelling for a wide audience? It’s a dilemma that, in less literal forms, makers of serious issue films have been struggling with ever since educational and “public information” movies developed their bad rep in the classrooms of the 70s. For Orlowski, the key is bearing in mind one important distinction: “I don't consider Chasing Ice a campaigning documentary,” he says “Do we want the film to have impact?  Yes.  Do we want it to show people what's going on? Yes.  But the goal of the film itself isn't to campaign or be propaganda. That's completely missing the point.” 

It’s no surprise that filmmakers are reluctant to tarnish their work with the dreaded “campaigning” label. Campaigning docs are derided as 'propaganda' by those who believe documentary should be objective, and derided as 'worthy' by those who believe cinema must, above all, entertain. Yet while the term itself has fallen out of favour, films about serious issues – the descendants of yesteryear’s dull docs - are more popular, glamorous and lucrative than ever. 

There was plenty of evidence of this transformation at the second ever Puma Creative Impact Awards, held last month in a converted waterworks in Berlin’s Mitte district. The guests drank kumquat cocktails ate a buffet of locally-sourced food, while filmmakers competed for a not-to-be-sniffed at 50,000 euro prize. This year’s finalists included Budrus a thought-provoking film about non-violent resistance on the West Bank; Gasland, an occasionally lyrical, always fascinating road movie about the impact of fracking on North America and Bag It a funny and effective reproof and to half-arsed recyclers.

It was enough to attract a sprinkle of Hollywood sparkle to the judging panel, in the form of actor and activist Danny Glover and Djimon Hounsou, the Benin-born, LA-based star of Amistad and Blood Diamond. Why did they agree to take part? “The more profound reason is the fact that this is the great medium for third world countries to showcase their plight,” says Hounsou. “This is a great vehicle for us, in some of the most remote places, to tell our stories and to bring our stories to the West”

If socially conscious docs have become more attentive to the trimmings – the cocktail receptions, the global brand sponsors and the movie star endorsements – they aren’t ignoring the meat of the issue either. While the dull campaigning docs of yore were content to ‘raise awareness’, these films are affecting their goals with extensive and bold outreach programmes put in place, in some cases, even before production starts. Femke van Velzen, co-director of Weapon of War, a film about rape in the Congo, emphasises that the real target audience for her film was not Western cinema-goers or even NGOs, but the Congolese soldiers involved in the crimes depicted. “For us the most important thing was to bring it back to Congo, to have real change there…If you really want to solve the problem of sexual violence, you should include the perpetrators. We struggled, because that’s still a controversial idea and I think a lot of NGOs are not open to it at all.”

For Joachen Zeitz, the chairman of sports brand Puma, it's this focus on concrete action that makes sponsorship of these films an attractive commercial prospect. “There are a lot of awards already for documentaries, I mean we all love to watch films, but at the end of the day what really matters is if a film creates impact, by contributing to a change in behaviour.” The eventual winner Budrus impressed the judges with quantifiable evidence of the screenings for 200 officials on Capitol hill, 300,000 online references to the film and a verifiable change in the tone of media coverage of non-violent protest in the Middle East.

What evidence will Chasing Ice have to offer the judges next year?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Media Sales - £36,000 OTE

£28000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Recruitment Genius: C# .NET Developer / Application Support - Junior

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This business has an industry r...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Planner

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They make daily deliveries to most foodservice...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A young person in the UK is now twice as likely to be poor as a pensioner  

Britain is no country for the young – in jobs, income or housing

Ben Chu
LaGuardia Airport: a relic from a different, gentler age  

New York's LaGuardia Airport to be rebuilt: It could become the best gateway to America

Simon Calder
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
10 best DSLRs

Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

Solved after 200 years

The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

Sunken sub

Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

Age of the selfie

Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

Not so square

How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

Still carrying the torch

The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

...but history suggests otherwise
The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

The bald truth

How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

Tour de France 2015

Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

A new beginning for supersonic flight?

Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash