Collaborative Audience Engagement: A New Model for Activist Filmmakers

Curator's Note

At a University Film and Video Association (UFVA) conference two years ago, I organized a panel around what was then a newish trend in documentary filmmaking, Audience Engagement, the process of moving a film’s audience from passive viewing to active involvement. The first question asked by a colleague started with a deep, penetrating sigh that belied his exhaustion: “So, what you’re telling me is that in addition to all the work I go through to make my film, I now have to build an audience, encourage them to take action, convince organizations working on similar issues to squeeze my film into their priorities, and design a tool to assess all this? Oh, and I still have a full-time job as a college professor.” And then he sighed again.

I feel his fatigue. It’s not easy being an activist filmmaker and, and, and….

So, when I was invited to contribute SoleJourney, a film I co-directed with Kate Burns to a first-of-its-kind collaborative audience engagement effort spearheaded by Working Films, I jumped at the opportunity. Their campaign, Reel Equality, is unique in that it provides six different films to North Carolinians to use in their effort to defeat a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Working Films is collaborating with Equality North Carolina and Human Rights Campaign, tapping into existing constituencies (churches, community groups and schools) and making it easy to conduct a screening. (See their Tool Kit).

This model, of grouping similarly themed films to address sociocultural concerns, poses interesting possibilities especially for film activists who may not have the skill set, time or energy to take the next steps with their film. Furthermore, it’s often a hard sell to write up audience engagement as “productivity” for more traditional tenure and promotion committees.

Certainly there are questions to consider in using outside providers to conduct audience engagement campaigns, just as we question third-party distributors. DIY audience engagement for those of us scrambling to make our films can stand for “Do It? Yikes!” Nevertheless, knowing there might be additional ways to use your film to enact social change and that there are experts available to help, well, this makes me want to sigh…with relief.

Please see other the other 6 film clips here.


Thanks for your post, Sheila. I'm glad that you highlight the labor--often unpaid and so demanding--involved in these efforts. Also, the ubiquity of viral videos makes it seem like posting something on Youtube allows it to magically reach a large audience, when in fact there is much community building and grass roots canvassing that goes on behind the scenes for these films to find audiences. 

 What a wonderful initiative to pool the resources of a range existing organizations in order to use films for activism without putting the entire burden on the filmmaker's shoulders. It's great to be able to see a model that can at least begin to address the usual difficulties, including standards of academic assessment.

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