Sunday at MIPDOC, award-winning producers and directors Moxie Firecracker Films’ Liz Garbus and Rory Kennedy spoke with Sundance Channel’s SVP of original programming Lynne Kirby about making socially responsible docs and how they continue to tell stories that inspire them.
Documentary detractors often have one common criticism for why they’re turned off of docs, and that’s that they spout too much doom and gloom. ‘My brother says we make two types of films, depressing and really depressing,’ said Kennedy. ‘And we tend towards the latter, I think.’
But when questioned by an audience member as to why so many socially conscious docs focus on the sad realities rather than the possible solutions, Kennedy defended this style of filmmaking. She says she doesn’t fully agree with her brother’s assessment; rather, she feels she and Garbus are trying to find hope in the projects they do, such as their recent Sundance Film Festival selection Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech and their Emmy Award-winning doc Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Kirby says she thinks there is room for both positive and harder stories in today’s marketplace. ‘All films can’t be all things to all people,’ she says.
When it comes to getting eyeballs for socially conscious docs, the partners in Moxie Firecracker Films don’t see all doom and gloom either. One key to attracting audiences, they say, is getting press. Their advice is to get media attention for your doc, not just to attract eyeballs to the film, but also to get the message behind the project to a larger audience.
And one of the most gratifying aspects of doing a socially conscious doc is seeing the effects the work has on the public, from individual shifts in attitude to changes in government policy. Garbus reminisced about meeting a woman on a plane who told her that she thought differently about her duty as a juror after seeing Garbus’ film The Execution of Wanda Jean about Wanda Jean Allen’s death sentence. Kennedy’s film Pandemic: Facing AIDS influenced the US government to allocate more funds to AIDS in Africa.
Though Moxie Firecracker doesn’t focus exclusively on social change docs, Kennedy told realscreen that while she does think of herself as a social change documentarian, she’s making these types of films primarily because she’s interested in the subject matter. Both Kirby and Kennedy believe people are looking for stories of hope in this economy. So even if docs don’t inspire their audience, viewers are looking to watch other people’s stories, experience alternate realities and, perhaps, just relate to the stories being told.