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Storytelling and Metrics: A Delicate Dance for Documentarians

*Reposted from The Media Impact Project*

 

Pushing the art of nonfiction storytelling is at front and center of our work as filmmakers. By being true to that craft and faithful to its ability to expose the core of our common humanity, we believe that deeper authentic community dialogue around particular issues can be achieved. Visual storytelling has the power to evoke reflection and even individual behavior change. Combined with a carefully designed engagement campaign, documentaries can create significant societal impact. A successful engagement strategy includes trusted partnerships, strategic messaging, and thoughtful engagement both on and offline – all to deepen the relationship with the target audience. Metrics can help us understand and convey the extent to which we can create this kind of impact with our target audience. What we have learned with our latest feature documentary, American Promise, is that the measurement of impact must itself be thoughtful, and cannot be limited by only quantitative data, as it does not always represent the most meaningful kinds of engagement. Instead metrics should be thought of as contributing to an overarching analytical narrative that examines one on one dialogue sparked by a film’s issue(s), and an analysis that sheds light on the better uses of storytelling that help push for both individual behavior and systemic change.

“Developing strategic partnerships is essential for both funding and successful engagement. WithAmerican Promise, we saw an opportunity to contribute to the efforts of organizations already building a movement to close the black male achievement gap in education.” Strategically designed focus group research and discussions supported by entities such as The Fledgling Fund and the Ford Foundation during the production of American Promise, resulted in trusting partnerships with key organizations that remain instrumental to the success of the film’s campaign, continuing to this day. By the time American Promise’s release occurred, a total of 66 national partners and 118 community organizations had mobilized to support the film. Stronger  partnerships between organizations were also forged as a result of their collaborative use of the film; for example, United Way and America’s Promise Alliance seized the opportunity to work with The Arthur M. Blank Foundation to deepen their work in Atlanta by usingAmerican Promise, and supporting our participation in a two-day long public workshop series. These types of collaborative opportunities sparked by the resonance of the film’s story and community engagement effort sparked local funding support in a number other cities: Omaha and Minneapolis to name a few..

The initial partner conversations we had in the planning phase also helped narrow our priority target constituencies – African American parents and teachers of black boys between birth and age twelve. With specific target audiences identified we focused on understanding their needs, and worked to develop specific tools for engagement, including a book, a mobile app, screening guides, and workshops. We embraced an evidence-based approach to develop the impact metrics of the campaign, such as after-screening surveys, partners’ metrics, and online data analysis (webviews, google trends, etc.). For example, the term ‘implicit bias’, a main point of discussion in our speaking engagements and workshops, was used on average 4 times daily in news headlines prior to the campaign, and is now used 20 times on average and continues to rise. Though we can not attribute this increase entirely to the American Promise campaign, we believe we have contributed to the public discourse and increased awareness around this issue. In conjunction with these metrics, we seek qualitative measurements such as interviews, quotes, personal narratives and empirical evidence gathered in person and online. Not only does this allow us to contextualize some of the data collected, it is a robust demonstration of our target audience’s personal and often deep commitment to change.

Examining the reach of our target audience is not only critical to quantitative metrics, but also valuable to our understanding of a much harder to measure metric – gauging a film’s ability to spark conversation that  affects individual behavior and attitudes. This understanding was developed over time with offline community work aimed at building trust and engaging in direct community dialogue that can at times be uncomfortable but necessary. These conversations gave us a first hand idea of  individual and community needs, and served to expand and deepen our campaign tools, such as our Promise Clubs, a national parent affinity group network, which directly benefits our target community. We continue to learn about parent groups, small community screenings, group meetings, and schools not directly related to our outreach work that have incorporated tools associated with the American Promise campaign. We can only assume many more have occurred across the country that we are unaware of. Paradoxically, a main goal of our community engagement work is precisely to push for our target communities to take ownership of the campaign tools and instigate their own smaller level engagement work. Yet, once these interactions are sparked, we in turn relinquish a certain level of control and ability to measure their impact. This direct offline community interaction combined with the personal vulnerable nature of our story continue to have a hard to measure exponential ripple effect that is deep and long-lasting. Just recently in our third trip to Atlanta, the rich conversation that occurred after a public screening at the Atlanta International School extended to well over two hours. If not for the plane, we would have stayed longer. Smaller parent and educator groups formed to continue the exchange throughout the coming months and next school year. This direct engagement highlights the potentially unquantifiable emotional impact and continued conversation a film can trigger, and is a better demonstration of impact than easily digestible numbers such as attendance, or demographics. These exchanges speak to the heart of ‘taking action’ and inform our impact metrics narrative.

The most meaningful moments of impact are often captured in conversations with our target audience and feedback from our partners. “[We wanted] to dig deeper in our work, but we needed a narrative, a human story that could serve as a catalyst to make our work happen in an inclusive way that does not point fingers” said a school district representative in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. In many cases, American Promise has provided a way to reach that pivotal point of discussion where a community can lean into a difficult conversation on the road towards change. It is crucial to demonstrate to funders an understanding of the audience, and to discuss the measures for campaign success based on the audience’s needs. When we discuss funding, metrics, and impact, we should all be asking (and many of us are), what is the intrinsic value that this analysis brings and how do we develop more comprehensive metrics that are inclusive of the entire engagement conversation.

“A Conversation About Growing Up Black”

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*Re-posted from NYTimes.com*

Imagine strangers crossing the street to avoid you, imagine the police arbitrarily stopping you, imagine knowing people fear you because of the color of your skin. Many of this country’s young black men and boys don’t have to imagine.

In this Op-Doc video, “A Conversation about Growing Up Black,” we ask African-American boys and young men to tell us candidly about the daily challenges they face because of these realities. They speak openly about what it means to be a young black man in a racially charged world and explain how they feel when their parents try to shelter and prepare them for a world that is too often unfair and biased.

As we debate the headlines about the deaths of young black men and police misconduct, from Baltimore to Ferguson to Staten Island, we fear our society is turning away from the painful conversations that need to be had at home, in our own communities, schools and families. Focusing our attention on the nation’s latest racial hot zone often devolves into the same old invectives about race and politics, and we lose sight of the bigger picture. Worse, it allows us to avoid the painful discussions we need to have with our young people about their concerns, and the role we each may play in them. We can be a part of the solution only if we dare to open up and have the conversation.

 

“A Conversation With My Black Son”

*Reposted from NYTimes.com*

For generations, parents of black boys across the United States have rehearsed, dreaded and postponed “The Conversation.” But when their boys become teenagers, parents must choose whether or not to expose their sons to what it means to be a black man here. To keep him safe, they may have to tell the child they love that he risks being targeted by the police, simply because of the color of his skin. How should parents impart this information, while maintaining their child’s pride and sense of self? How does one teach a child to face dangerous racism and ask him to emerge unscathed?

This Op-Doc video is our attempt to explore this quandary, by listening to a variety of parents and the different ways they handle these sensitive discussions. In bringing about more public awareness that these conversations exist, we hope that someday they won’t be necessary.

We intend “A Conversation With My Black Son” to be the first in a series of videos that will foster discussions about the state of race relations in America.

Hollywood: The Power of the White Gaze

All [stories] are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority. The universal in the [story] is reached only through the depiction of the specific man in a specific circumstance.

Ralph Ellison, The Paris Review 1955

Boyhood the beloved front-runner in Sunday’s Best Film category, written and directed by Richard Linklater, which has an uncanny similar premise to our 2013 documentary American Promise — a chronicle of a boy’s life from childhood to adulthood shot over 12 years in real time — provides for critics and audiences a safe, white middle class suburban slice of a passage of time in America. In some circles, Boyhood is hailed as universal in its feel, a story “we all can relate to.” Interestingly, too rarely is the position of whiteness and middle-classness questioned as a position or point of view with a specificity that pertains to the lived experience of a particular racial group. As the gazers, critics and creators, many of us unassumingly internalize dominant white culture as the “norm.” Whiteness unconsciously becomes the standard for cinematic excellence, achievement and creativity. Whereas, examining a longitudinal film such as American Promise, the exercise becomes a bit more complicated on so many levels – often fraught with tension and racial schisms and points of view determined by the racial gaze of the audience and critics. Racialized lenses are accepted as a must with American Promise. That is to say, there is no luxury of escaping ones racialized position when watching, critiquing or responding to it. And that’s fine with us, in fact, we embrace and lean into those uncomfortable moments both on and off the screen with audiences and friends. In some ways, it fuels our creativity and provides potential for personal transformation to those who engage in the conversation head on.

Interestingly, the type of black and brown stories that appear to be easier to digest, are more often historical in nature, like Selma, 12 Years a Slave, or documentaries like Four Little Girls. All masterful pieces of work, but no doubt a little easier for our dominant culture to accept than more immediate contemporary black films likeFruitvale Station, Beyond the Lights, and perhaps American Promise. We all at some point talk from that internalized white middle class gaze, because using another lens to interpret reality and film is painful and uncomfortable. Many of our white liberal gazers fall into the trap of using certain “norms” to judge the quality of a film — being completely unaware of their own prejudices s when they pass judgment. None of us is immune. Most importantly, we sit in pain as our white colleagues critique and define black culture from a space of authority, without the conscious knowledge of their micro-aggression, or our own hurt. Why do we allow this to continue? Because we long for acceptance? And yet that search for approval from whites in our field comes at a price — a price of submission to the humiliating forces of the matrix, false reality, or fantasy of our own exceptionalism.

In a world where many are now aware of implicit bias, it’s time to deal with those inherent preconceptions at home. We’ve dedicated our lives and art to looking at ourselves and our extended community, but for us, the most difficult thing to do is point the finger at our fellow filmmakers, our colleagues, and our white friends who create a large percentage of black-themed films coming out today. Often, their unconscious perspectives precariously reinforce a point-of-view that perpetuate stereotypes of black and brown people that in turn encourage a national and international pattern of perception. We have to work on changing that gaze with a conversation that begins locally, with our white friends about our complicated black and brown lives.

As contemporary culture creators and critics, how can we maintain a self-awareness of our own racialized realities and position in society and understand how it informs our every action, viewing experience, creative idea and interpretation of art and life, rather than assume the dominant culture’s universality in our work? While academically we may think we are beyond this debate, we are not, because our fellow filmmakers, critics, writers, and other gatekeepers in the film industry continue to rely and fall back on these same old unconscious assumptions.

It’s time to make it our duty to lean into the discomfort of unmasking those presumptions and challenging those points of view on a daily basis so that culture creators can come to the table with a more sensitive, more willing, and more realistic outlook when it comes to the experiences and realities of those different from their own. Only then can dramatic shifts happen where all our voices are heard and our creativity is appreciated and given validating platforms. We believe real change and equity will come when we are able to look into the eyes of our colleagues, critics, and filmmakers, and challenge the white gaze that strips our visibility and voice. We should not only debate the solution for injustice in Missouri and Staten Island, but also those injustices at Sony and in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.