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From Outreach to Impact: Two Decades of Working Films

By Bedatri D. Choudhury

Board, staff and allies of Working Films at a strategic planning retreat, September 2019. Courtesy of Working Films

Even before Working Films had a name, its founders, Robert West and Judith Helfand, knew what the organization would stand for and do. “Filmworks [as it was temporarily called] will transition social-issue documentaries beyond traditional distribution, broadcast and initial releases to further push their impact and potential. This initiative will extend the relevance and long-term usefulness of documentaries, capitalize on the momentum and recognition from festivals and broadcasts, and develop coordinated, integrated and timely grassroots outreach and classroom projects,” the duo wrote. Helfand went on to co-found Chicken & Egg Pictures, and West steered the organization towards its mission until his death from cancer in 2013.

When Working Films was founded, the term “impact producer” was yet to become a documentary buzzword. “Back in 2001, we called it ‘outreach coordinator,’ and that is what I was hired to do, as the first staff member at our Wilmington, North Carolina office,” says Molly Murphy, who took over as Working Films’ co-director along with Anna Lee, after West’s passing. The narrative shift around impact production, and the work that Working Films does, is reflected in the changing titles of Murphy’s roles at the organization. First, it was called “outreach,” then “engagement,” and then “impact.” Way before for-profit impact production companies came into being, Working Films was getting its hands dirty and figuring out how best to make films useful tools for social change: When reaching out wasn’t enough, they chose to engage, and from their engagement, they learned what they could do to produce an impact.

Filmmaker Natalie Bullock Brown was a member of the organization’s first board and remembers its post-2013 transition vividly. “Robert had really been the repository for everything,” she recalls. “I remember how hard the board worked to support Molly and Anna through that transition period as they rose to the challenge of beginning to forge relationships that Robert had initiated. They began to reach out to funders and partners to let them know that Working Films was going to continue. More importantly, they began to build these relationships in ways that were broader than what Robert had done.” Murphy agrees. The biggest hurdle for her and Lee, back in 2013, was to challenge the perception that the organization couldn't exist without West. “With nonprofits there is always that danger of becoming one person’s vision, and that is really harmful in movement work, where everything necessarily has to be collaborative,” Murphy explains. “And collaboration is at the core of everything we do at Working Films.” There was a need to repurpose the mission and examine the work the organization would do in the future. The organization became more “movement-centric,” as Murphy describes it. Traditional impact campaigns would take a film and then pursue strategic partnerships with organizations that had a shared vision. With the drawing board wide open, Working Films decided to redo that process and opted to listen to organizers and change leaders, and find out what their most pressing issues were and where the biggest gaps lay. They then equipped these partners with documentary films that would speak to those gaps, as a part of their Docs in Action program. They started off with environmental issues like fracking and offshore drilling, and then moved on to initiate more film-driven organizing campaigns to address immigration rights, to support immigrant-led organizing, and also to address the racial inequity of climate disasters.

In 2017, during a meeting with organizers and activists, where Working Films was looking to work from the intersection of race, economy and the climate crisis, an attendee pointed out that there was no way to address exploitation of people until one addresses the extractive nature of filmmaking on these issues. “The way in which documentary filmmakers have parachuted in at times of crisis, and extracted stories without giving power and agency to the people whose stories are being told, inspired us to start our Storyshift program,” Murphy explains. The program that is committed to changing the way stories are told, and to ensure commitment to an authentic representation of the people and places featured in documentary films, has Bullock Brown serving as its lead strategist. “The program was a reckoning with the fact that Working Films is an organization led by white women and that there were issues of accountability that were not being addressed,” Bullock Brown explains. As a Black woman and a filmmaker, she was aware of the struggle to get the resources to tell stories that she was uniquely situated to tell. The program started off with a series of videos where filmmakers discuss their strategies around accountability: it included Decade of Fire filmmakers Vivian Vázquez Irizarry and Gretchen Hildebran; Always in Season filmmaker Jacqueline Olive and protagonist Claudia Lacy; and Michelle Lanie and Alex Glustrom, from the team behind Mossville: When Great Trees Fall. Joining forces with impact strategist Sonya Childress, Bullock Brown wrote an accountability manifesto, of sorts, for Documentary. With a growing core group, the program now intends to push for larger structural change wherein film festivals, distribution channels and funders also participate in this demand for accountability and collaborative storytelling.

“Frankly, to really decolonize filmmaking, we have to decolonize philanthropy,” Gerry Leonard, an impact producer with Working Films, maintains. Leonard has been working at Working Films for a little more than a year and leads the organization’s Putting Films to Work, which is a year-long training institute for Georgia-based nonprofits that helps these organizations maximize the use of the power of documentary media to advance their organizing, educational and advocacy goals. The aim is to take useful films to those who are historically disenfranchised. “These organizations do a better job of doing that than we ever can,” he adds. Working Films’ movement-centric work demands that Leonard and his colleagues build capacity for organizers who are on the ground working to address issues such as income, equality, racism and the climate crisis. “It’s our job to do a lot of the heavy lifting around putting together screening events, so these organizations can bring in new audiences and use documentaries to help move their work and mission forward,” says Leonard. For him it isn’t enough to talk about accountability. His work aims at being able to name explicitly what accountability means.

For another program, Revisioning Recovery, a collection of short films that advocate for race-equitable climate solutions, the final selection of films was undertaken by six partner organizations. “This lets us work deeply within communities and areas that often don’t have the media hustle and bustle around them,” says Hannah Hearn, the impact producer leading the program, who has been with Working Films since 2018. “But there is a ton of film work going on around them and our intent is to bring these films and discussions into spaces where they don’t always have the chance to come together to share stories. It really helps us plug in to the work happening locally."

From 'We Still Here' (directed and produced by Eli Jacobs Fantauzzi and Defend Puerto Rico), about the recovery movement in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. 'We Still Here' is part of a colleciton of films in Working Films' Revisoning Recovery program. Courtesy of Working Films

As Working Films celebrates its 20th anniversary, the intent of its staff and board members is no longer to harp on bringing access to underrepresented communities but to resource and empower what is already of value in these communities. The latest edition of the Docs in Action program calls for media that amplifies efforts to abolish the prison industrial complex. The power to decide on what films get selected rests with the people and organizations who would be using these films to further their own abolitionist activism. The idea is to challenge the entitlement of filmmakers to decide what story they feel fit to tell. “People will need to be more self-reflective about that process, and not be threatened by the idea of people, who have typically not been able to have access to the resources, taking over the conversation.” explains Bullock Brown.

“That does not mean that something is going to be taken away from you, that does not mean that there won't be enough left for you and that you need to give every opportunity you have to somebody else.”

Hearn and Leonard have both been a part of Working Films’ growing team, but there are no plans to become a large corporation. “We want to remain small and in the South,” says Murphy. “We operate with an abundance mindset that doesn't hold back on sharing our learnings.” Asked  about the organization’s future plans, she says that the lip service around decentralizing and decolonizing documentaries needs to stop. “There are these calls for accountability but you're not yet seeing that criteria included in grant applications or in explicit ways in which they can be held up as a standard; that is what I want to contribute to,” she says. Hearn and Leonard—the new guard, as it were—are excited for a future of building trust and not creating pressurizing deadlines and measurables on organizers who are on the frontlines doing the work of changing the world. The future, as the staff and board see it, eponymously enough, involves a lot of working, and they’re ready for it. “I am proud of the way Working Films has grown. I just wish Robert were here to see this baby all grown up. It’s no longer a baby!” Bullock Brown reflects.

Bedatri D. Choudhury works with documentary films and is a culture journalist. Born and raised in India, she lives in New York City.