How do you pick the topics for each of your programmes?
It depends. For our Why Stories program, which is ongoing, and in its 5th season, we buy 20 completed films per year and then donate them to underserved countries. We generally focus on human rights and human-interest films. And we look for films that enable people to navigate the world we live in. Human rights including for example inequality, women’s and girls’ rights, the rule of law, slavery. We also look for geographical diversity and for films primarily made by local filmmakers.
The topics for our thematic programs are more defined and focused, and they come up in different ways. While we were launching Why Poverty at the UN, for example, we got a ticket for President Obama’s speech. And in the 40 minutes he spoke, he only talked about modern slavery. That made me think that this issue must be much bigger in scope than we were aware of. We did research and realized that the number mentioned – 40 million people – is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Slavery is the ultimate human rights violation and we thought it would be an important topic to shed light on and this is how Why Slavery came to be.
What happens to a program like Why Democracy or Why Poverty, which were created many years ago? Do you still promote and distribute the films in these programs?
We started The Why with the intention to give documentaries very long lives because we thought that so many wonderful films were not seen that much. And we wanted them to be seen not only in the Western world but all over the world. Of course, some films are dated, but many of the films in our older programs are still super relevant and are still creating debate. Please Vote for Me, a film about elections in a Chinese school class is still shown on TV and in many schools around the world because it illustrates the microcosmos of an election with spin, bribery, and backstabbing. Another example is Stealing Africa, which is not only a film about Nigeria but about tax evasion in general, showing how the system works and how it enforces inequality and makes a few people rich. We always look for human stories but with a contextual layer, and therefore the films remain relevant for many years.
How do you choose the specific topics and the filmmakers of the films you produce?
After we decide on a topic, we do calls for films in filmmaking circles, at festivals, and on our website. We also talk to our partners and to filmmakers telling them we have this upcoming theme. We then organize pitching sessions and decide how the films could give a global insight into the topic we have chosen.
We started The Why with the intention to give documentaries very long lives because we thought that so many wonderful films were not seen that much.
Can you tell me a bit about the impact of The Why?
When working with media, it is often difficult to pinpoint what the exact impact is. But when 100 million people have seen one film, lots of impact and reactions are accumulated. The immediate impact is awareness. People watch them and they learn about something that happens in the world. What does it mean when a film on girl trafficking is watched by 9000 children in Kenya? We don’t know but reporting shows important reactions: seeing is believing. In Kenya, we do see a lot of debate online afterward, and thousands of shares and comments.
We sent Stealing Africa to the White House and had screenings in the EU institutions and the UN, and it was a facilitator of change, pointing to the importance of having country by country tax reporting, which was back then not required. As a result of showing this film, now all companies working in Africa can no longer just declare the tax they pay in the region of all African or Asian countries as a total, they have to declare how much tax they pay in each country.
What can you tell us about the upcoming Why Plastic? campaign program?
The campaign program will come out in October 2021. We had to postpone it a bit, but the good thing out of that is that we can now include the whole Covid-19 period – with the extensive use of plastic for protection and in the medical industry. We focus on the industry and its expectation to increase plastic production by 40%, The recycling industry – its state of the art and what the future looks like – and last, we look into the ways plastic impacts our health and our body.
What makes you most proud about your work?
Many people would think that launching our films at the UN must be the most fantastic moment – and it is fantastic. But I am most proud when we get reports from screenings in southern Egypt, or in schools in Mongolia, or indeed from small towns in Denmark. I like to see the debates following screenings, and how people engage with the topics. Teachers writing to us about the films increasing interest in the world or beyond our own. Showing the films at the UN is a major, but when I can see how stories change people’s understanding – a new humanity awareness – that is rewarding and meaningful.
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