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Chapter 7: The Catalytic Role of Documentary Outreach

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Next to gravity, inertia is perhaps the most ubiquitous force. It's an obstacle activists and documentary filmmakers know all too well. "You can watch the most powerful film in a room with a thousand people, but you don't necessarily turn to the stranger next to you and say, 'Oh my gosh, we've got to do something about that," observes Michael Hill, associate director of the Dorot Foundation, "people are not used to translating that into action. At least I'm not. I watch Bill Moyers or whatever, and when they say, 'If you want to do more, go to our Web site', I've never done that once in my life!" he admits with a laugh. "You need an activity set up to channel that energy."

Judith Helfand, an accomplished filmmaker, is charting new territory in this regard. She successfully uses her films in partnership with nonprofits to amplify grassroots organizing efforts. These partnerships enable Helfand to secure media grants from program officers who "don't fund media." She also cofounded Working Films, an organization that partners with filmmakers to create long-term outreach campaigns in communities and classrooms.

The outreach campaign around Hefland's first film, A Healthy Baby Girl, about the relationship between DES, a once popular anti-miscarraige drug linked to cervical cancer in daughters of women who took the drug, included distribution of Community Action Guides geared towards people working in health care and with patients. Helfand also formed an alliance with an environmental health coalition, Health Care Without Harm (HCWH), which seeks to eliminate toxins from the medical waste stream. The campaign involved a screening and discussion of A Healthy Baby Girl, plus a follow-up meeting between students and an organizer from HCWH-a critical organizing step. Helfand made over 100 such appearances. Some had direct and immediate results but as Helfand notes, "the impact is long-term."
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When Helfand began raising money for her next film, Blue Vinyl, she partnered with organizations working on the issues addressed by her film from day one. Blue Vinyl is a filmic odyssey that begins at Helfand's parents' blue vinyl-sided Long Island house, and then moves around the world to follow the toxic trail that the production and incineration of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) leave behind.

Helfand approached foundations that were funding activists groups in Louisiana near the country's largest vinyl plant. "I went to them not only because they were funding some of the grassroots organizations I was already working with, but in order for that re-development to happen, there has to be demand from consumers and the middle class for products that don't harm anyone. And that's what Blue Vinyl will do." Her logic worked. Ford Foundation program officer Vernice Miller-Travis saw an 18 minute trailer and committed $150,000 even though Ford's Community and Resource Development unit had never funded media before.

Blue Vinyl will air on HBO to an audience of 10 million. The outreach campaign, launched at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, brings the issue home. Audience members each received a blue chip with the warning "This is vinyl. Don't burn it and don't throw it away" and a Web address where they could learn more.

"First people funded production; then they wanted to do outreach," says Michael Hill, associate director of the Dorot Foundation, a family foundation that rarely funds media, but which supported Helfand's last two films. "Now Judith is at the vanguard of saying 'That's fine, but outreach really needs to be a three-year process. I don't know how many foundations are there yet, but hopefully it's an evolving process." In the meantime, it's clear that funding for film outreach proves to be a worthwhile investment for foundations interested in social change.

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