Last April, I attended the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England, as part of the Sundance Documentary Film Program delegation.
The SWF is an annual convening of social entrepreneurs and world-renowned problem solvers to come together for critical debates, discussions, and work sessions aimed at innovating, accelerating and scaling solutions to social challenges. There’s even a little time set aside every year for some pretty darn good karaoke. (My personal highlight last year was singing the Annie Lennox song “Sweet Dreams” with none other than the great Annie Lennox.)
These folks are tackling some of the most complex and pressing issues of our times, and with the support of Jeff Skoll and his team and others, they’re making a huge difference. Yet despite this group’s enormous amounts of passion and know-how, there are two fundamental challenges that many of them wrestle with, namely:
What is their story? And how best to tell it?
Like many passionate people, social entrepreneurs are so focused on their day-to-day activities it’s sometimes difficult for them to step back and explain to others what it is they do. It often takes an outsider — a writer, a journalist, a documentary filmmaker — to offer a fresh perspective and to help them shape and tell their own stories.
I was fortunate to meet several social entrepreneurs in Oxford, and many of them talked about the challenges they’ve had creating their messaging and not knowing how best to improve upon it. One noted that “it’s not what we do well”, and that attempts to tell their own stories through web videos and PSAs have sometimes fallen flat.
There is also the struggle of trying to make a great PSA or short film on very limited budgets (or no budgets at all). As a result, messaging is often put to the back-burner while these entrepreneurs and their teams soldier on with the great work they are doing throughout the world. Unfortunately, this means that their efforts are going largely unrecognized by others, and badly needed support from potential partners, funders, and others remains unrealized.
Following my experience at SWF, I was fortunate to be able to work directly with two innovative organizations, and the results have been terrific. ARZU Studio Hope is a dynamic model of social entrepreneurship that helps Afghan women weavers and their families break the cycle of poverty by providing them steady income and access to education and healthcare by sourcing and selling the rugs they weave.
The founder Connie Duckworth and I talked at length about the work they’ve done over the past ten years, and she mentioned that they’d had great success recently with a partnership they have with some of the world’s leading architects. Frank Gehry and others donated original designs to ARZU that were then woven by Afghan women. This “Master’s Collection”, along with dozens of original designs by Afghan women and weavers, have been praised by interior designers and rug owners around the world, and have become an economic driver in the region where ARZU is working.
“You should tell that story,” I suggested, knowing that having the hook of world class architects could be very effective in reaching a wider audience. Within weeks we completed the PSA and posted it on their home page, and the response was great.
Paul Rice and I visiting Fair Trade coffee co-ops
in Costa Rica.
I also collaborated with Paul Rice and his team at Fair Trade USA. They’ve done very effective work over the years with their messaging, and have an ever-growing number of business partners and customers.
Last spring they were particularly interested in creating a message for Fair Trade Month, which takes place every October. The goal of Fair Trade Month is to reach consumers — ideally moms and dads who do the grocery shopping for their families — and encourage them to buy more Fair Trade USA certified products (like coffee, tea, fruits and vegetables, and even ice cream).
Stepping away temporarily from some of the kinds of messaging they normally do featuring farmers and the ways Fair Trade USA is helping to improve their lives, we took the message directly into the homes of a typical American consumer and had young kids help get the message across. Here’s the video we made for them. Aside from the significant YouTube exposure (400,000 hits and counting), Fair Trade USA also worked closely with the PlowShare Group and was able to get the PSA placed on a large number of broadcast and cable outlets.
The challenges so many Skoll entrepreneurs face in creating their messaging — complex storylines, limited funding, need for a fresh perspective — are exactly the challenges most documentary filmmakers are up against whenever we begin a new project. But unlike large advertising agencies and communications firms, documentary filmmakers typically have small staffs (or often no full-time staff at all), which keeps our overhead low, and have become skilled at doing a lot on small budgets. The old maxim “constraint breeds creativity” has practically become a battle cry among many of my fellow doc filmmakers and me.
So for the Frank Gehry piece, we interviewed him for fifteen minutes here in Los Angeles, had a stringer in Afghanistan shoot photos and b-roll of the ARZU facilities, she dropboxed us her incredible footage (way to go Elissa Bogos!), we edited for about three days here in our home office (hats off to our editor Nick Andert), and posted the video by the end of the week. The Fair Trade video, which included about a dozen young kids, was shot over the course of two days and edited in about a week and a half. And though both groups were thrilled with the results, there was an unspoken deal between us that if they weren’t pleased with what we delivered we could go right back to the drawing board and try a new idea or two.
Both the Gehry piece and the Fair Trade video offered fresh perspectives, brought the stories to new audiences, and were delivered quickly and on shoestring budgets. And for me and my team, these projects afforded us an opportunity to do work we’re proud of and to do our small part in helping others to make the world a better place. And unlike our films, which typically take years to make, these small efforts can be done in little over a week or two.
The work these social entrepreneurs are doing is truly inspiring, and provide great hope for the challenges we face in the years ahead. Finding ways my skills can connect with and amplify all of their great work by telling and sharing their stories to as wide an audience as possible is rewarding. It’s no wonder the Sundance Documentary Film Program delegation has become such a valued part of the annual proceedings in Oxford.
And you thought it was just because of our singing voices.
Patrick Creadon is a documentary filmmaker and director. His first two films “Wordplay” and “I.O.U.S.A.” both premiered at Sundance and went on to have wide theatrical releases. His current film “If You Build It” spends a year in the life of one of America’s most innovative classrooms, was recently awarded the Bright Future Award from Unilever Project Sunlight at the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards. He and his wife, producer Christine O’Malley, have three children and live in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.