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That's Motivation! Working Films Reaches Out

By Belinda Baldwin

Judith Helfand, co-founder of the North Carolina-based Working Films, from her film 'Blue Vinyl.' Courtesy of HBO

Neither a production company nor a distributor, Working Films, the North Carolina-based nonprofit, brings media activists, educators, community groups and other social organizations together to increase the social, political and cultural impact of specific issue documentaries. For Working Films, a great film is "working" only if audience members leave the screening to write their state representatives for hate crime legislation, boycott toxic products, or examine personal feelings about race, religion, abortion or human sexuality.

Media educator Robert West and award-winning documentarian Judith Helfand started Working Films in 1996 with a state-wide curriculum project entitled "From Farm to Fast Food: On the Job in North Carolina." West and Helfand constructed an outreach kit, available at no charge to teachers, composed of relevant docs (like Helfand and George Stoney's The Uprising of '34 [1955], which ties the General Textile Strike of 1934 to labor, power and economics in today's South), Internet sites and other appropriate teaching materials meant to enhance the state's traditional 8th, 9th and 10th grade history and social studies curriculum.

Operating now in some 250 North Carolina classrooms, the project gives more than 6,000 future voters an opportunity to learn how to place themselves within the state's complex economic history. In doing so, these teens learn how the state's economic policies shape their everyday lives. The "New Faces" unit, added to the project in 2003, focuses on the economic and cultural contributions of Latino workers in North Carolina.

As with From Farm to Fast Food, Working Films builds campaigns to enhance a film's impact and broaden its reach. As West explains, "Our intention is to raise the expectations of every documentary filmmaker about the potential for documentary media to enliven the work and enrich the resources of social justice struggles." Working Films does this by collaborating with filmmakers at every stage of development to build a specific but far-reaching outreach plan that's appropriate to the issues addressed in the film. With Judith Helfand's Blue Vinyl, a "toxic comedy" about the environmental and health risks associated with polyvinyl chloride, or PVC (a product commonly used in home building materials like siding), Working Films created the 2002-2003 My House Is Your House outreach campaign with environmental groups, health advocates and scientists working on PVC-related issues.

Although HBO picked up Blue Vinyl at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, West and Helfand wanted to create a grassroots movement to supplement HBO's national broadcast. Their My House Is Your House campaign toured the film to community organizations across the country, and included a website, where motivated audiences could easily link to relevant advocacy organizations and participate in direct action against toxic manufacturing companies like Intimate Brands (the parent company of Victoria Secret and Bed and Bath Works), which committed to a 100 percent phase-out of PVC products after receiving some 6,000 emails and faxes via the Greenpeace website. Working Films also used the film to build a relationship with Healthy Building Network, where they gained access to design and construction professionals who represent the future of PVC-free construction.

With Two Towns of Jasper—a film by Whitney Dow and Marco Williams about the racial atmosphere in Jasper, Texas, where an African-American, James Byrd Jr., was tortured and murdered by three white men—Working Films created a pre-broadcast campaign with P.O.V., the Television Race Initiative (TRI), Independent Television Service (ITVS) and the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) that was so successful that Oprah, The New York Times, and NPR covered the film before its January 2003 premiere on PBS. The film was the highest rated P.O.V. doc in five years. Post-broadcast, Working Films established partnerships with national organizations like Facing History and Ourselves to bring the film along with a carefully constructed "discussion guide" into classrooms and communities across the country. Perhaps even more so than the P.O.V. premiere, the film's 80-plus community screenings created the opportunity for constructive dialogue between blacks and whites about race relations in America.

Working Films launched its outreach campaign for Trembling Before G-d, Sandi DuBowski's exploration of Hasidic gays and lesbians, at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival with a Havdalah service and Morman-Jewish dialogue on homosexuality and religion. As West explains, "Sundance is the testing ground for the campaigns we commit to. Because of its prestige, it can leverage our access." Sundance premieres garner press and kicks off multi-year advocacy campaigns for Working Films.

With Jenny Raskin, Liz Mermin and Catherine Gund's On Hostile Ground, a doc about the dangers of being an abortion provider, Working Films started the film's outreach campaign in Utah medical schools, where conservative-backed legislation prevents abortion training for students, before bringing the film to equally conservative Southern and Northeastern medical communities. During the Utah screenings, Working Films co-developed with Medial Students for Choice a short "activist" version of the film to provide medical students, moved by the feature, some key steps to supporting reproductive rights and abortion training at their medical school.

With every one of its many projects, Working Films collaborates with filmmakers to ensure that great political docs motivate audiences, even outside of the film's broadcast and theatrical screenings, to take immediate and direct action to amending the problems addressed in the film. As West explains, Working Films "wants the lifetime of a doc, even two years from its premiere, to be clear and measured successes of ongoing impact." In having this as its goal, Working Films (with similar organizations like has brought the idea of "outreaching" to the forefront of today's documentary community.

And this is as it should be. For if the goal is a clear and measurable impact, then a carefully constructed outreach plan is as vital as the depth and breadth of the film itself.


Belinda Baldwin is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. She lives and works in Los Angeles.