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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?
  • @MsEllenEJones

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?