Every week, “Charts & Graphs” looks past the weekend box-office numbers to examine other lists of movies that are popular right now, as assessed by the likes of iTunes, Amazon, Box Office Mojo, and other services.
Two weeks ago, a company called Aggregate released the results of a survey it conducted at the True/False Film Festival earlier this year. The purpose of the survey was to see what documentary filmmakers think about the power of their work to spur action and social change. The kinds of filmmakers who show their documentaries at True/False tend not to make issue-driven, activist movies, which made Aggregate’s survey pool more eclectic, and not as automatically inclined to be optimistic about changing the world through cinema. Nevertheless, the responses to the survey seem to suggest that documentary filmmakers believe they can do some good.
Here’s a sampling of some of the questions and answers:
Do you believe that nonfiction films can create social change?
Yes: 91 percent
How important is it for your film to create social change?
Very important: 42 percent
Neutral: 39 percent
Unimportant: 19 percent
Rank these four options as a definition of “social change”:
Increased awareness of an issue that needs to be addressed: 47 percent (as top choice)
Change in popular opinion over time: 26 percent
Change in government or corporate policy: 9 percent
Movement building/Creating advocates: 6 percent
Other: 12 percent
Do you have plans to do any outreach to increase the potential of your film to create social change?
No: 56 percent
Are there effective ways to measure the social change created by a film?
No: 83 percent
Do you think there should be metrics to measure the social change created by a film?
No: 66 percent
A few notes:
- I found it interesting to read the results of this survey after spending a few days immersed in the films and documentaries of Krzysztof Kieslowski, who seemed especially skeptical about the power of any individual to make a huge difference, and who especially hesitated to use his documentaries as an activist tool.
- The aesthetics of a film tend to suffer when a documentarian goes into a project thinking, “This’ll change people’s minds about wind power,” or, “This’ll end gerrymandering once and for all.” I don’t mind documentaries that are more journalism than art, though I do tend to assess those documentaries as journalism, which means I’m weighing the strength of the argument more than the quality of the film. Ultimately, I may resist having my mind changed more by an activist issue-doc than, say, a docu-realistic slice of life.
- I’d have to agree with the True/False attendees that there are no good metrics for assessing the social impact of a film (although I’d recommend reading some of the written responses to these questions, which offer more nuance than the raw numbers). I’d say the best that any politicized documentarian can hope for is to plant one seed among many, producing a field of great ideas with no one parent.
- I’d be curious to hear from Dissolve readers—anecdotally in the comments, not in survey form—as to whether they’ve ever had their minds changed by a documentary, either on a major social issue or just when it comes to their opinion of some celebrity of politician.