My experience with documentary film began when I was a teenager, when I worked with the Point of View (POV) documentary series on PBS. While serving on the Youth Views advisory board, I learned the importance of storytelling and saw how film could open up viewers’ eyes to social issues.
Later, as I grew in my career and worked to tell my own stories as a reporter, I tried to channel what I learned at POV into the issues I covered, but I found myself frustrated by deadlines and the limitations of the news industry. Confined to only so many minutes on the air or limited to a word count, I couldn’t fully tell the stories I was discovering.
And after living abroad and researching human rights for several years, I had quite a few stories to tell—everything from the plight of refugees to the realities of human trafficking. Tremendous stories that needed to be told, but that weren’t of much interest to American media. I needed a place to share them.
Then, a mentor put me in touch with Shine Global, an Oscar-winning production company based in New York that has produced films like War Dance, Inocente, and The Harvest. The company’s commitment to “shine a light" on untold stories of children struggling to survive around the world convinced me to approach the producers about the young girls and trafficking prevention organizations of Northern Thailand with whom I had worked.
I did—and now, we are collaborating on a feature documentary, Selling our Daughters, about human trafficking in Northern Thailand. And as I’ve been working on this project, I’ve been reminded of just how powerful documentaries are as a tool for advocacy and social change.
So, if you’re looking for a way to highlight a cause you’re passionate about, feature someone or something that fascinates you, or even tell your own story, consider doing so through a documentary film. Here are a just a few reasons it can be so powerful.
Shine a Light on Untold Stories
Traditional news informs viewers about what’s happening daily, and news turnaround happens quickly, making it hard to actually follow a story from start to finish. But a documentary can open up stories that people rarely hear about or challenge popular views of the way things are. For example, the film Good Fortune explores how international aid efforts that have great intentions end up forcing people to lose their homes in the Nairobi slums. We often hear news about "great" organizations providing aid, but the film reveals that sometimes the West’s efforts to help can do more harm than good.
Such films can also help humanize people in seemingly far-off places—as in Lost Boys of Sudan, which follows Sudanese refugees as they face challenges resettling in America.
Engage the Complexity of the Story
I remember being frustrated with the news because I was expected to do justice to someone’s life story in four minutes or less. There were always key components left on the editing room floor, which removed important context and sources from the story. But using documentary film can help you explore the many layers and angles to an issue. With most documentaries, you work to build trust and strong relationships with the people you feature, so that they offer an honest, insider’s perspective to the story. This helps to show viewers how nuanced each issue really is.
The Academy-Award winning film Inocente, for example, focuses on a young artist who is homeless and without status in America. While discussion about the Dream Act was in full swing, this was one of the first films to bring to light the personal, complicated challenges that the “dreamer” generation endures.
Spur Community Action
In class, when I try to bring the reality of global issues home for students, I always use media and film to show them, rather than tell them, what is going on. And documentary film holds a different place in their hearts—not only does it allow them to get together outside of class to hold screenings and discuss important issues, but it’s a way for them to bring home what they’re learning to their friends and families, too. After screening The Interrupters, a documentary about trying to curb gang violence, many of my students wanted to screen it in their own communities to see if they could adopt the model presented in the film.
Call Policy Makers to Action
Have you ever thought about where the produce in your salad comes from? It could easily originate from the labor of one of the 400,000 American children working in U.S. agricultural fields. It’s shocking, but that is the reality featured in the film The Harvest/La Cosecha, which tells stories of the children who are pulled from school and work in the fields every day.
Documentaries like this can offer powerful insight into why policies need to be drafted and modified. The Harvest was screened by the U.S. Department of Labor and was used to help push through the CARE Act of 2009, which strengthened provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act against child labor.
Similarly, the Women, War & Peace series on PBS opened the dialogue about women who find themselves in war and who take action to stop it it. The series focused on the stories of women in Liberia, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Bosnia—and it got people talking about standing up against brutality and holding leaders accountable during wartime.
Offer a Lasting Legacy
Finally, a documentary can be an important call to action for future generations. In My Lifetime, a film produced by one of my mentors, Bob Frye, about the history of nuclear weapons, is a great example. By showing how they have affected our world in the past and predicting the impact they could have in the future, the film opens up important dialogue about nuclear weapons and how to seek a way beyond them.
Historical or current events documentaries, in particular, can offer a lens into the past and can be used as a tool by students, policymakers, and communities to educate themselves as current global issues take shape.
Documentary film can offer a lens into history or simply shed light on a forgotten or untold story. But it’s more than just a form of storytelling—it’s a way to offer new viewpoints on an issue and create lasting dialogue and change. So, whether you want to champion your cause, influence policy, or simply tell a unique story, documentary just might be the right medium for your work.
For more information about getting involved with documentary filmmaking, check out:
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author