Documentary films
World-changing Films

Photo: Sabine Scholz-Hinton
Photo: Sabine Scholz-Hinton

“It’s not enough to say how many people saw a film or how many Facebook likes it got,” says impact producer Hattie Archibald. “At Screen Impact, we help documentary films create real social change.”

Teenage refugees. Gay rugby players. Struggling Indigenous communities. These are just some of the big issues that 26-year-old Australian impact producer at Screen Impact, Hattie Archibald, is helping bring to the big screen.But getting a film on a cinema screen is only one part in a long journey toward social change. Hattie is part of a Sydney-based team of five who work with film directors and producers to help promote films and create partnerships with activist organisations who can use that film as a campaigning tool.

“We ask, ‘How can this film move the conversation forwards around an issue?’” says Hattie. “But before that, we need to consult people already working in the sector so that we’re working toward the same goal.” Unlike films like Kony 2012 that went viral but ultimately achieved very little — some would say it actually had a negative impact on the plight of child soldiers in Uganda — Screen Impact ensures a film fits into a broader conversation about social change.

“Our goal isn’t always to get a film on as many cinema screens as possible. What’s more important is making people feel like they’re part of a community of people who want to make change. So we make sure the cinema is packed and it’s an evening to remember. There could be food and wine, a talk from a screening partner, a Q and A session with the director, an opportunity to sign up to learn more, and someone to talk to if you want to screen the film at your school or workplace.”The Screen Impact team judges their success by how a film has helped affect political policies, changed the way the community talks about an issue, and how individuals’ lives have been changed. “It’s not enough to say how many people saw a film or how many Facebook likes it got,” says Hattie.

Start-to-finish impact: an example

Screen Impact got its start in November 2015 when founder, Simon Nasht, received a Screen Australia grant to assemble a team, including Hattie, to explore new paths for independent film distribution.Given the start-up is still in its first year and their first film has only recently hit the big screen, the best example of the kind of social change Screen Impact hopes to achieve and the kind of strategies they use can be found in Hattie’s previous work on the film Gayby Baby.

In 2012, when Hattie was working at the distribution start-up FanDependent, a pair of budding filmmakers, Maya Newell and Charlotte McLellan, showed her a few rough-cut scenes about what it’s like growing up in a family with same-sex parents. Maya is herself the child of two mums and ‘gayby’ is a word the filmmakers made-up for a child with gay parents.

When Hattie saw the footage she knew it would connect with audiences. “The films that audiences want to watch — the ones that can change the world — are those that make the big issues personal.” Same-sex marriage is still not legal in Australia and LGBTQI families are a controversial issue, but here was footage that asked the kids with same-sex parents how they felt about their families. “No one had ever asked the children at the center of this public debate how they felt,” says Hattie.

Creating a loyal audience 

Hattie helped put together a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible to raise funds to shoot more footage. Crowdfunding campaigns help foster a community of people who want to see the film succeed. Rather than the film being bankrolled by a studio or a few investors, when you have a critical mass of small funders you have a loyal audience who build momentum and spread the word.The successful crowdfunding campaign funded a longer version of the film which was then invited to be part of Good Pitch 2014, an event at the Sydney Opera House where filmmakers pitch their film and impact strategy in front of a group of NGOs, foundations, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, potential corporate partners and broadcasters. They received support from a range of backers who believed Gayby Baby had the power to change Australia’s attitude to LGBTQI families.

Developing resources 

One of Maya and Charlotte’s key goals for Gayby Baby was to reach young people. “For kids growing up in LGBTQI families, you really can’t underestimate what it means to see a family like yours represented on screen,” says Hattie. Part of Hattie’s strategy involved the filmmakers working with education consultants to choose clips from the film and develop learning packs for teachers to use in classrooms around Australia.They also partnered with the LGBTQI youth-led organization Wear it Purple and gave free copies of the film to any school in Australia that wanted to screen it as part of their 2015 Wear it Purple Day celebrations. Everything was on track until the morning before Wear it Purple Day when an article on the front page of the Daily Telegraph, one of Australia’s largest newspapers, sparked outrage throughout the conservative press. The State Education Minister of New South Wales banned the film from screening during school hours.

While there were some “very ugly” things said about LGBTQI children and their families that week, the film ultimately benefited from the media attention. “There were opinion pieces in every major newspaper and they were overwhelmingly in support of the film,” remembers Hattie. “And the Premier of Victoria actually encouraged students in his state to watch it.”

“We were able to see how the word ‘gayby’ spiked on social media. Kids with same-sex parents even started referring to themselves as gaybies!” recalls Hattie.

Forming a political coalition

Another key goal for Gayby Baby was to reach Australia’s politicians. “There was a lot of momentum internationally, but in Australia we were still in a delicate situation,” says Hattie.The team liaised with Australian Marriage Equality, a major campaigning force to legalise same-sex marriage, to work out how to move forward, and hosted a panel discussion about LGBTQI families at Parliament House. “Politicians had the opportunity to talk with gaybies ranging from 18 to 67 years in age. It was such an amazing day,” says Hattie.

The battle for LGBTQI families in Australia to enjoy the same legal protections as the rest of the country is still waging — but Hattie is proud that Gayby Baby continues to fight the good fight at home and abroad. “It’s travelled to the US, been in international film festivals, and has been released in cinemas across Germany.”

 What’s next?

Cast from the Storm will be next on the agenda, a film about refugee teenagers living in Australia who share their stories in an after-school theatre group. With the help of Amnesty International, Hattie and the team premiered the film for free online in the lead up to the UN Summit for Refugees. “Normally, releasing a film for free would be considered commercial suicide,” says Hattie, “but our priority is to get the film out there and generate word-of-mouth.”“It’s such a privilege to help these films find audiences – and then to hear how moved the audiences are after watching them. People want to be informed and introduced to new ideas.”