Aurora Hannisdal
Hannisdal is a freelance journalist. She worked for years with NY TID (Modern Times) in Norway.

We are experiencing a new wave of documentaries not content with merely documenting and portraying. These want to generate genuine social change, far beyond the traditional auditoriums.

‘Now that the film is launched, half of the job is done’, states Julia Dahr.The Norwegian film maker is in Copenhagen for the world premiere of her new film Thank You For the Rain, and to introduce the documentary at the Good Pitch event. Dahr worked on the film for six years, and believes that she will continue to work on it for years to come. She hopes the film can reach far beyond the festival audience and a Northern European TV-audience. She wants it to generate change and to have repercussions on both local and global levels. Dahr is, with this, part of a wave of new documentary makers who are not just content with documenting a phenomenon and moving on. They want to create real social change, also outside of darkened auditoriums.

‘It’s hard to plan for climate changes.’ Kisilu Musya

From farmer to environmentalist. Six years ago, director Julia Dahr and camera woman Julie Lunde Lillesæter left for Kenya. They wanted to make a film about the people who were directly affected by climate changes. One of these were Kisilu Musya. In 2011, Musya returned to the countryside from the city to be a farmer, like his parents. His parents did also experience difficult weather conditions, but Musya never imagined how hard it would become. Due to climate changes, the weather became increasingly extreme. For instance, Musya and his family experienced periods of draught. As they then attempted to adapt their crops to arid weather, floods hit and washed everything away. The storm tore the roof off his house.

‘It’s difficult to plan for climate change’, says Musya when Modern Times Review meets him in Copenhagen together with Julia Dahr. The Kenyan farmed asked Dahr to give him a camera, so he was able to document the weather when she was not present. In time, Musya himself has become a film maker and environmentalist, in addition to working as informal advisor and local community leader. He helps other farmers find various strategies to secure their crops against the climate changes. He has also set up self-help groups and started projects planting trees. They started collecting rain water, irrigating by hand using a simple system. This makes it possible for them to harvest several times a season.

Spreading awareness. Musya and Dahr want to use their documentary to spread awareness about the ongoing climate changes. The documentary, which will be dubbed into the East African languages Kamba and Swahili, will hopefully be screened to more than 100, 000 Eastern Africa inhabitants. They both hope that it will be able to inspire and contribute to building climate resistant local communities, based on Musya’s model. The film makers want to use the film to hold world leaders accountable, and to make sure promises made at the Paris Agreement are not forgotten. One such occasion was when Dahr and Musya introduced

Thank You For the Rain at Good Pitch, the forum connecting film makers with NGOs. Among those praising the film this time was former Danish Foreign Secretary and Finance Minister, and former Chairman of the UN General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft. He stood up in the audience and thanked the film makers for their efforts. Over the course of a decade, Good Pitch has been held in six continents. Film makers from 25 different countries have managed to raise 25 million Euro for their various projects. At the Copenhagen event, Thank You For the Rain was introduced to decision makers, organisations, politicians and the media. The film team met with representations for several organisations including World Economic Forum and the Mary Robinson Foundation.

‘We were able to contact many that we otherwise would not have reached, and more have already signalled that they want to help us get Kisilu and the film on various forums, organise locale screenings and spread the word about the film,’ explains Julie Lunde Lillesæter. In addition to being the film’s photographer, she also holds, a retrospect title – ‘impact producer’. Lillesæter is in no doubt that this opportunity will make it easier to create a strong campaign and to show the film to the correct people in the right places.

Better than a campaign. Documentaries are often supported by NGOs, but these organisations just as often carry their own agenda. A key word here is ‘impact’: You want use the film for lobbying in the real world and to generate genuine change.

‘Good Pitch poses ambitious questions.’ Abigail Anketell-Jones

‘For the right organisation, the film can be a useful tool. If it hits home with its theme, nation or demography, an external documentary could prove better suited to making change than a campaign produced internally,’ states the seminar The Art of Impact in Copenhagen. The 2014 Belgian-produced documentary Virunga portrays the Congolese national park wardens’ fight against poachers and a powerful, multinational company. This film is a good example of a documentary that received this type of support. Funds have poured in from amongst others Global Witness, the organisation that fights corruption and environmental crime, and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which works to raise poverty living standards.

Abigail Anketell-Jones worked on the production side for both Virunga and the award-winning documentary short The White Helmets, which portrays the Syrian civil defence. Both films are Good Pitch-projects, with repercussions felt far beyond the film makers’ imagination. ‘Good Pitch poses this ambitious question: What is the best you can do with this documentary? It is extremely inspiring’, stated Anketell-Jones at the seminar.

Genuine change. On their website, the film makers summarised the ‘impact’ achieved by Virunga. They feel the documentary has changed people’s awareness, in addition to individual behavioural patterns, like making sure they do not have any investments in companies such as oil and gas producer SOCO – the documentary’s big bad wolf. The film reveals extensive corruption in the company. These revelations are taken very seriously and have been taken further by important news media including the BBC, The New York Times, The Telegraph and Al Jazeera.

You could carry on forever working on the themes and subjects.

In the end, SOCO completed an internal investigation, and assured the press that they had cleaned up their ranks. ‘This was a setback,’ says Anketell-Jones. ‘We had to work twice as hard to persuade people that the fight was far from over’. In the end, the investigation was classed as insufficient by the company shareholders. This led one of these, the Church of England, to request the SOCO chairman to step down.

The Virunga-creators are clearly able to claim that their documentary contributed to changing the situation for the national park and its wardens. The film has also contributed to putting the spotlight on corruption. One of the challenges that occurs when conducting such extensive work in the aftermath of a documentary, is that you may carry on working on the themes and subjects forever, explains Anketell-Jones.

‘You have to ask yourself: When is the job actually done?’ she says.

Facts about Good Pitch:

  • Founded at the 2008 BRITDOC Film Festival, and today organised alongside Sundance.
  • Has had events in London, Oxford, New York City, Washington, D.C., Toronto, San Francisco and Johannesburg.
  • More than 90 documentary projects (6–8 per each event) have thus far been introduced, and more than 2,000 organisations have participated.