How do you know if documentary film makes a difference in the world?
If you’re a social scientist, you evaluate it.
That’s what the Aspen Planning and Evaluation Program did in one of the most extensive studies ever to look at the impact of documentary film in a global development setting (173 pages with attachments, for those counting). The recently released study presents data and findings for Women and Girls Lead Global, a partnership between ITVS, USAID, and the Ford Foundation, with additional evaluation support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation: 5 years, 5 countries, 34 films, 60 partners, 21 major objectives. (You can skim the highlights in the executive summary.)
The full report is aimed at global development professionals, with its tables of data and references to behavior change and social norms. But there are some big takeaways for filmmakers, too—especially the many documentary producers who work tirelessly on important social issues, lead ambitious engagement campaigns, and seek new ways to prove impact.
Facilitated screenings change the way people see the world. The facilitated screenings at the heart of the Women and Girls Lead Global program helped move the dial on dozens of measures related to how people see the world, themselves and others. A consistent range of 15-30 percentage points (which is a lot!) was found across multiple issue and countries. One standout example: the number of young men who said they would intervene in sexual harassment more than doubled after screening and discussing three ITVS documentaries about female empowerment.
Real change depends on the partner—but can be very powerful. In the 280 schools studied in Bangladesh where the project worked closely with the Ministry of Education, both child marriage and dropout rates dropped from roughly one in twenty to one in a hundred—or an estimated 1500 fewer child brides and/or teenage dropouts. Big institutional partners may be the hardest to bring on board, but they proved the most impactful to work with.
New tools are needed to measure the impact of “art.” Major studies like the report from Aspen are not feasible for most documentary filmmakers or organizations. With that in mind, ITVS developed and tested a prototype of DocSCALE, a new platform that could one day help filmmakers collect quick, cheaper, and better data—and do it in a way that’s more participatory with audiences and gathers insights in their own words. You can read more about the DocSCALE platform in this white paper or a more layman’s view in this recent article at Stanford Social Innovation Review.
The study is certainly not the final word on the impact of documentary film, and more studies are hopefully coming. But the next time a funder asks a filmmaker how we know that documentaries work, this report should be shared with them as a powerful piece of an age-old puzzle: proving the real-world impact of film.
From our blog
March 8, 2019
Orthodox Jewish culture, paramedics, and humor round out director Paula Eiselt's intimate portrait of a group of women in Brooklyn who pushed back against their establishment. Paula was able to draw upon her cultural connection to the women who form the Ezras Nahim collective and build the trust needed to tell their story. With grace and patience,…
February 28, 2019
What could be more dramatic than a meeting of fresh, creative minds coming together to discuss the future of independent films? The ITVS Independents Summit is a gathering of filmmakers, ITVS staff, and partners to exchange views on the best approach to bring more diverse content to public media. For one week, we opened our doors and welcomed an…
February 1, 2019
You have an exceptional story to tell and deserve the best partner to help set the stage for engaging communities via public media. We are here to support your vision and reach that pinnacle. The ITVS Independents Summit will elevate our shared values and be the place for you, ITVS staff, and industry partners to plant a flag and stake a claim for excellence in…