Shifting Narratives Through Documentary Film: A Case Study of Budrus
Julia Bacha is the director, producer, and writer of Budrus, which received a Sundance Documentary Film Grant in 2009.
The past few years have brought tremendous achievements to documentary films focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. From Academy Award nominations (5 Broken Cameras and The Gatekeepers) to top prizes at Sundance (The Law in These Parts) to a Peabody Award (My Neighbourhood, which I co-directed with Rebekah Wingert-Jabi), films on this issue are clearly in the midst of an exciting period of recognition and success.
But amidst the celebrations, it’s worth asking what this success means in the long run. Regardless of how many accolades they stack up, or how many viewers they reach, what guarantee is there that these films are doing any more than generating buzz and drawing short-lived press attention?
Put differently, how can documentary filmmakers working on long-standing social and political issues ensure that their work is well poised to move the needle on their chosen topic in a significant way?
These have been some of the central questions we’ve been asking ourselves at Just Vision since we began our work nearly ten years ago. As a nonprofit committed to increasing the power and legitimacy of Palestinians and Israelis involved in nonviolent efforts to end the occupation and the conflict, we recognized the advantages of film early on: as an immersive storytelling medium, it has the rare capacity to allow large numbers of people to briefly suspend disbelief, and invest themselves in a particular narrative, even if it happens to fall beyond the confines of their traditional political perspectives. It also takes viewers beyond the platitudes that often dominate discourse on controversial issues, and allows them to examine the implications of a particular topic on a human scale. But while recognizing these benefits, we also knew that without a targeted, strategic outreach plan that went beyond initial distribution, film would fall short as an effective tool for change.
Our feature-length documentary, Budrus,tells the story of a Palestinian community organizer who succeeded in uniting Palestinians of all factions together with Israelis in a nonviolent movement to save his village of Budrus from destruction by Israel’s Separation Barrier. We made the film with the explicit goals of putting Palestinian and Israeli nonviolence efforts at the center of local and international discourse about the conflict, as well as building the capacity of nonviolent activists in the field by ensuring they gain traction within their own societies and abroad.
Since Budrus’s release just over three years ago, we have learnt valuable lessons about the ways in which socially and politically oriented films can be designed to have a lasting impact, from early production stages, through more advanced phases of distribution, outreach and evaluation.
Here are some of the central guiding principles we took away from that process, and which now stand at the core of our work at Just Vision:
Before production, research and analyze the field thoroughly.
In the case of Budrus, we began planning the film after several years of studying the needs and challenges faced by hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian peacebuilders and nonviolence activists. In over 400 interviews, these activists identified their main challenge as “invisibility” and a lack of attention from their own societies and the international community. It also became clear to us that for fair, honest and effective negotiations to take place, the imbalance of power between Israelis and Palestinians would have to be addressed, and that the best way for that to be achieved would be through a Palestinian-led grassroots nonviolent movement. We also recognized that there was a common misconception amongst Israeli and international audiences that Palestinians had never tried using nonviolence, and a parallel misconception amongst Palestinians that based on past experience, nonviolence has no chance of ending occupation and guaranteeing their freedom.
Clearly define the change you’re trying to make with your film, and the impact you’re uniquely positioned to create on your issue.
As we were making Budrus, we knew we weren’t immediately going to change government policy in the US or in the Middle East vis-à-vis the conflict, nor did we expect that a film would catalyze a mass grassroots nonviolent movement overnight. But we did believe we could, for the first time, provide a model of successful local nonviolent resistance that Palestinians and Israelis could relate to and draw lessons from. We also believed we could change the narrative in the international community from one that was saying, “If only the Palestinians tried nonviolence, there would be peace.” to one that asks “What can we do to support those Palestinians and Israelis who are engaged in nonviolent resistance right now?”
Find a compelling story.
At the heart of any successful film is a powerful story. And a story should be just that: a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end, powerful protagonists that audiences can identify with, and a dramatic arc that is able to capture and hold viewers’ intellectual and emotional attention. A film seeking to create change on a difficult issue should not try to provide a definitive historical overview, nor present an op-ed style argument.
With Budrus, we were lucky to find a textbook example of a story that was compelling on multiple counts: the central protagonists were a charismatic father and daughter who spearheaded a successful nonviolent campaign in their village, while the campaign itself included the leadership and participation of women, unity across Palestinian factional divides, and the participation of Israelis in a Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance movement.
Before releasing your film, build a detailed outreach strategy that allows you to be proactive in bringing the message to your key target audiences.
For any filmmaker who has just released a film and who is experiencing some measure of success, the temptation can be great to respond to every screening request that comes in. While bringing the film to a wide variety of audiences is important, those seeking to create social and political change with their film should carefully consider which audiences are most crucial to shifting deep-seated beliefs and narratives. Likewise, trusted messengers for these key communities should be brought on board early in the filmmaking process, and consulted even before production is complete.
Given that our goals with Budrus were to build the capacity of activists in the field, and increase public awareness in Palestinian, Israeli and American society about the existence of successful nonviolence initiatives on the ground, we defined our key target audiences as local and international media, Palestinians facing similar challenges to the residents of the village of Budrus, public intellectuals, educators and community leaders in Palestinian, Israeli and American societies.
With these audiences in mind, we determined that leveraging a high-profile festival and theatrical release of the film, and the widespread media coverage that comes with it, would be the best way to gain the attention of the key influencers we were hoping to reach.
Find an effective way to measure your film’s impact, and draw the necessary lessons for your next project.
This is perhaps the most crucial part of the documentary filmmaking process, and one that is too often overlooked. With Budrus, we measured success both by soliciting qualitative feedback from the range of audiences we came into contact with (hearing, for example, from a Palestinian village that was so galvanized after watching the film that they had one of their most organized and spirited protests ever the following day, or from an Israeli-American for whom the film served as a central catalyst to become more involved as an activist living in Jerusalem), and by allowing a major public relations firm to conduct an independent audit on the media impact of the film:
Strategy One, a daughter company of Edelman, the world’s largest public relations firm, analyzed all of the English-language media coverage relating to the village of Budrus before and after the film’s release. The results showed that while there had been some limited media coverage of events in Budrus prior to the release of the film, nearly all of that coverage was conducted through a law and order lens, treating the protests in Budrus as disturbances of the peace. On the other hand, after the release of the film, most of the media items incorporated the key message we had laid out early in the production process: that the people of Budrus were engaged in a nonviolent struggle to save their lands and olive trees. The study showed conclusively that beyond putting Budrus on the map, the film successfully shifted the media narrative about events in the village from one about chaotic riots to one about a strategic nonviolent campaign.
Few moments are more powerful than those when a film manages to shift the way a person looks at the world. But for that shift to translate into broader political and social change, the planned trajectory of a film must go well beyond initial release stages. For filmmakers to bring their audiences along on a particular issue, they must first know very clearly where they are trying to go.