Are Social Documentaries a Kind of Philanthropy?

Documentary filmmakers have a unique chance to work on in-depth research about complex subject matter. Here at Kensington we have produced many documentaries about social issues and we’ve learned a lot about different perspectives on the issues and how to connect with audiences.

Through speaking with interviewees who we sometimes follow for years, we become intimately connected with the issues and the people we work with. While we produce films that are informed by social movements, we also take pleasure that our films are used as tools in social movements. Films about social issues have the potential to make an impact on public opinion, for example big budget documentaries such as An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, The End of the Line and The Corporation.

Documentary Philanthropy banner

Can documentaries be thought of as a kind of philanthropy? Some filmmakers think so… 

“One metric of success that we use is whether more good comes from the film than just putting the money directly to work in a non-profit organization involved in the same issue… We will take risks on projects where we think we might lose money, because we hope that the good that comes from that outweighs the risk. It’s a different kind of philanthropy”. – Jeff Skoll, Executive Producer of An Inconvenient Truth – (Bruce Newman interview for the San Jose Mercury. October 2005.)

Reality VS. Documentary

While Reality TV is a contemporary form of documentary that has become ubiquitous on TV, larger feature-length documentaries and one-off productions are far more expensive to produce and generally less popular amongst the majority of mass media broadcasters and consumers. Documentary films are more often funded by public broadcasters and government granting organizations who see the value in addressing social issues through film. Sometimes corporations even fund social issues films, to leave their mark and promote social good – for example, Red Bull’s Bouncing Cats (about war orphans in Uganda learning to breakdance).

Documentaries with a Cause

In order to be commercially successful, independent documentary filmmakers increasingly have to link up with a cause and connect with advocacy groups and audiences to market their films. In addition to film festivals, here at Kensington we launched an alternative distribution program for our 2010 production Raw Opium: Pain, Pleasure, Profits, in which we connected with leading alternative distributor Hello Cool World and drug policy reform groups, so they could host screenings with panel discussions in the US and Canada. 

About our Work

Social issues documentaries make up just one part of the work we do, while some of our more commercial projects pay the bills and allow us to take up less financially profitable work.

For our film Diamond Road we connected with audiences who were interested in learning more about the diamond trade and launched some of the first interactive companion websites for documentary.  For our documentaries River of Sand and Return to Nepal, featuring Songwriter Bruce Cockburn (who was working with the NGO, USC Canada) we explored Mali’s ancient culture and revealed a corner of the Himalayas whose people have much to offer us, including spiritual wisdom and tactics for environmental sustainability.

Meanwhile, our 4-part TV series for CBC and PBS called the Sacred Balance was used throughout the world by educators and environmental groups and won several awards internationally from Houston to Paris. We then used the documentary film material to create a short video for the David Suzuki Foundation. Most recently, we have teamed up with Free the Children to create a 5-part video series called Shameless Idealists featuring intimate portraits of celebrities who are creating positive social change. Craig Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, is the host.

Our catalogue now includes documentaries about a range of hot-button topics, among them conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone, how we reconcile human progress with environmental sustainability, how celebrities use their clout for social good, and how rural cultures adapt in challenging modern times.

As with most community building projects, connecting with film audiences takes time and requires diligence over several years on the part of the filmmakers and community partners. This is hard, but extremely rewarding work.

What’s your view on social issue documentaries?
Do you think there is a more robust revenue-generating model for them?
Which documentaries of this genre are your favourite and why?
If you’re a documentary filmmaker, tell us why you find it rewarding work.

Amanda Connon-Unda,

Social Media Manager and Blogger at Kensington