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?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Health and Social Care NVQ Assessor

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: It is also essential that you p...

Recruitment Genius: Service / Installation Engineer - South East England

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful Service Engineer...

Recruitment Genius: ICT Infrastructure Manager

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Edinburgh city centre scho...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Don’t pity me for eating alone, just give me a better table

Rosie Millard
Aerial view of planned third runway at Heathrow  

Heathrow expansion: This final 'conclusion' has simply fanned the airport flames

Chris Blackhurst
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most