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What Good Can a Film Do?


A scene from "A River Changes Course," a film by Kalyanee Mam about corporate encroachments on a river in northern Cambodia and the ef
A scene from “A River Changes Course,” a film by Kalyanee Mam about how corporate encroachments on a river in northern Cambodia are diminishing livelihoods. Photo courtesy of “A River Changes Course.”

ISTANBUL — In 2013, Daniela Kon founded the Social Impact Media Awards to give a boost to a certain kind of documentary film. Documentaries don’t usually make a lot of money. Except for a few lucky theatrical or television releases each year that manage to do more than break even, most documentary films are largely a labor of love. Where box office reports can’t provide a measure of a film’s success — it wouldn’t be fair — another parameter is needed.

Social impact is a way of understanding a film’s relative effect on the world. As an extreme hypothesis, let’s assume the existence of a film — about, say, displacement — that gets seen only by one person. But it literally saves that person’s life. One person, however, is not great box office. Yet saving one life is high impact. So, social impact is using social good as currency to judge the worth of a film. It’s strategically developed by wisely choosing a target audience, expanding the opportunities for that audience to view the film and giving the audience members whatever kind of takeaway — postcards with critical statistics, a website with useful information, follow-up educational modules — helps the message of the film last beyond the screening time.

Kon’s Social Impact Media Awards join an increasing field of organizations trying to enhance, reward and acknowledge films with this kind of power. Her goal is to “advance global awareness, social justice, human rights and humanitarian development by catalyzing creative works of visual storytelling that inspire activism, compassion and social transformation,” and this is accomplished first by hosting the competition and then by giving the winning films support in an online video library and through submissions to festivals and distributors around the world. Kon, who is German, has a background in documentary film production, with expertise and particular experience in global humanitarian development.

This year, I had the honor of being on the awards’ 2014 jury, a mix of filmmakers, development consultants and educators. The nature of the contest and the preliminary selection process for the finalists created a set of films that spanned effortlessly across subject areas and perspectives. Outside the commercial spotlight (although some of the movies have enjoyed considerable success in distribution), the world could be seen close up and nuanced.

Taking a break from the mainstream can change your mind about which issues are most affecting the world today. I found it most striking, after viewing about 10 films in the field of 27 semifinalists, that the most common theme was displacement. Characters in these films were fleeing oppression, environmental disaster, war and economic hardship. Throughout the world, a common tale is emerging — heartless forces, unbelievably tragic events or hopeless stagnation are creating hardships for people in countless ways.

In “Sunflower Seeds,” by Antonis Tolakis, a roughly made street documentary, young boys — their families are political refugees from Afghanistan — try to get by on the streets of Athens. The often harsh treatment they receive is a cold reminder that in fleeing one despair people often find another misery waiting. Although the boys in the movie often need to evade negative attention from police or people in the street, the camera stays with them, privileging their viewpoint, as Tolakis makes visible “a ‘systemic’ violence that is inherent in every society, even if we don’t see it.”

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In “A River Changes Course,” Kalyanee Mam stunningly depicts the lives of families in northern Cambodia who depend for a living on a river that they are losing to corporate encroachment. One family’s fishing prospects are dimming in the face of large fishing concessions. Around another family’s rice fields, the forest is rapidly being slashed away. And a mother and daughter suffer a slow and inevitable separation as the younger generation decides that work in the city’s garment factories — even with the loneliest of living conditions — is the only way forward. Mam’s movie is filmed with relentless intimacy, and the truth is found in the rich detail and patient observation that the viewer gets to share in, drawing her own conclusions.

A family in Ain el-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon and the focus of a documentary, “A World Not Ours.” Photo courtesy of “A World Not Ours.”

A World Not Ours” is the culmination of two generations of men documenting life inside Ain el-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Like the remarkable 2011 film, “Five Broken Cameras,” this documentary is a result of an obsession with video cameras and the truth that emerges from quotidian observations. Eventually supported by British producers and editors, the film gives us insights that are essentially different from the views that even the best observational film team could gain on a normal “production schedule” with a generous amount of visits.

Om Amira” is a little jewel of a film. In contrast to the more well-publicized films that have attempted to tell the story of revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in a more direct way, “Om Amira” tells a story on the fringes of the Egyptian revolution, quite literally by documenting the life of a seller of fried potatoes in the streets near Tahrir Square. The titular lead character must care for her whole family, with a husband too sick to work and one of her daughters coping with a life-threatening condition. This simple, well-filmed profile tells us much more about social and economic circumstances in Egypt in 25 minutes than most features possibly could.

The American viewer’s experience of film is mediated by a marketing structure that guides what we see with a heavy hand. It is extremely expensive to get a film to the big screen, or even to the little screen, so metrics are employed that guarantee some safety. Through these metrics, it’s not only content that is mediated — “this is what Americans want” — but perspective. Too often, we are seeing films that get couched within an American perspective to make them more palatable to an American audience.

As a filmmaker, I myself have been questioned many times, completely justifiably, about my motivations as an American making a documentary about a Senegalese activist fighting female genital cutting, called “Sarabah.” I believe there are many circumstances in which this outsider perspective is acceptable, and I understand many people disagree as to when that is so.

Another scene from "A River Changes Course."
Another scene from “A River Changes Course.” The filmmaker, Kalyanee Mam, is a Cambodian who was born during the Khmer Rouge regime. Photo: “A River Changes Course.”

In my case, I feel justified by the sequence of decisions that led us to make the film: met the activist; felt an instant connection to her music, her personality and her work drive; followed her story, which was using her music to fight female genital cutting. We didn’t have any explicit agenda about the practice, but people are free to think that we did and to ask me hard questions. There is an unfortunate history of Americans making condescending films about Africa, and we tried to get past that by making a film about a real grass-roots hero.

But the filmmakers that we do need to encourage are those who have the access and connection to their stories that helps a viewer understand different points of view. Kalyanee Mam was born during the Khmer Rouge regime and her family fled the refugee camps on the Thai border, eventually moving to the United States in 1981. Tolakis was motivated by fear of encroaching fascism and xenophobia in his native Greece to make “Sunflower Seeds.”

“Om Amira” was made by an Egyptian filmmaker whose office was in the same building as her subject’s home. Mahdi Fleifel set out to make a fiction movie about life in the Palestinian camps, shot research material there for weeks in 2010 and then realized that this footage combined with his father’s old VHS tapes gave him “everything I needed to tell the story I had wanted to tell all along — the reality would be far more satisfying than fiction.”

In the US, there is still a lack of appetite for foreign-made movies, even in the documentary market. More cameras in the hands of more people around the world is bringing us a rich variety of perspective that is essential to our understanding of lives around the world and the disheartening volume of adversity happening everywhere. The social impact of these stories often lies simply in the fact of their being known. So it’s important for us to find these films and learn from them and help others to see them however we can, just so we can all know the world a little better.





We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Maria Luisa Gambale, a graduate of Harvard University, lives in New York City. In addition to writing, she produces film and media projects and is director of the 2011 film “Sarabah,” about the Senegalese rapper-activist Sister Fa. She has produced and directed video for National Geographic, ABC News, The New York Times and Fusion Network. Gambale’s work in all media can be viewed at

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