Stories in philanthropy

What it takes to make documentaries that drive social change

In 2012, advertising executive Neil Lawrence approached documentary filmmaker Mitzi Goldman about a film project that was intended to reveal the full social impact of poker machines on the poorest people in Australia.

Lawrence, who famously conceived the ALP’s 2007 election campaign that piloted Kevin Rudd to The Lodge, had also rolled out a Stop the Losses campaign about the dangers of poker machines to the community’s most vulnerable. It hadn’t made the impact Lawrence wanted: could Mitzi help him make a film that would shift the dial on the issue?

The result was KaChing! Pokie Nation, a layered and penetrating take-down of the poker machine industry that was broadcast on ABC in 2015 and was watched by over a million Australians. Lawrence, tragically, was not alive to see it: he died in a diving accident in the Maldives only months earlier.

But Ka-Ching! is still doing the rounds and its powerful campaign is just one of the threads in Documentary Australia Foundation’s one-day forum, Stories That Work, that will be held in Melbourne later this month. The event is where philanthropy, social change campaigning, storytelling and filmmaking meet.

Mitzi Goldman, Documentary Australia’s CEO, was producer on KaChing! and knows only too well the power of documentaries to “inform, engage and inspire’’. Her organisation is the nation’s only not-for-profit body that promotes social change through documentary filmmaking. Central to that is the power of telling stories to go beyond just raising awareness and towards provoking action.

“As much as I’d like to say there’s a template for this kind of social change campaign through documentary storytelling, it’s more often a bespoke approach,’’ Mitzi says.

“You learn from other campaigns. Some of the issues that documentary makers explore are not new, but if there’s a zeitgeist out there – and you can connect with it and others working in the same area, that really gives the film a boost.’’

Alliance for Gambling Reform’s campaign director Tony Mohr will be one of the speakers at the Stories That Work event and will discuss how KaChing! has helped drive the dramatic changes in the pokies landscape. Perhaps the most remarkable change has been that supermarket giants Woolworth and Coles have pulled out of their investment in poker machines. “I would never have imagined that would have happened when we started work on the film,’’ Mitzi says.

But if there is one truism about documentary filmmaking and social change it is the need for patience and long-term thinking. “You have to be deeply committed to do it,’’ Mitzi says. “You don’t have to do it all yourself, but you need to work out who should be on your team. You need to know your strengths and you need good collaborators and probably a fundraiser. And filmmakers need to have realistic goals: you can’t change the world with one film. Filmmakers have to be strategic.’’  

The Stories That Work program includes screening and discussions about the climate change documentary 2040 from actor-turned filmmaker Damon Gameau, the wage slave story 88 Days A Slave, a film about the unacceptably high rates of Indigenous imprisonment called Incarceration Nation and a film to be seen on the ABC on Tuesday (October 8) about mental health in the entertainment industry, The Show Must Go On.

“Raising awareness about these issues is only the first step,’’ Mitzi says. “The next step is moving the from being a passive viewer to an active participant, to a real engagement, which leads to building movement on issues.’’

Stories That Work is not a pitching event for filmmakers with ideas about their next project. Instead, it will celebrate, discuss and dissect the campaigns behind the films, in what Mitzi believes is a first in Australia.

“The documentaries we support really do have an explicit social change goal,’’ she says. “Many of them have a human face and they all want to change the world.’’

Mitzi believes a combination of government funding pressures on the ABC and SBS, and partisan attacks on the broadcasters have squeezed social issue documentaries out of their schedules. “But we know there is an audience for this kind of documentary. People are hungry for them and they want to know how they work".

'Stories That Work' - Wednesday 16 October at The Arts Centre, Melbourne. Book tickets here.

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