While the global migrant crisis is one of the major news stories of the past year, it is one that needs to be approached with caution by producers and networks alike, according to commissioners and creators taking part in a session at Sunny Side of the Doc on Tuesday (June 21).
Moderated by RAI’s Duillo Giammaria, the session, titled “Global Issues: Keep Europe Afloat” discussed and debated the impact documentary content has in shaping both public opinion and political policy on social issues, especially for matters such as the migrant situation that polarize citizens and politicians alike.
Diego Buñuel (pictured), head of documentaries for France’s Canal Plus, said that filmmakers and commissioners may put too much emphasis on attacking issues in order to instigate change – a goal that is worthy but perhaps not entirely realistic given the amount of information assaulting people on a daily basis.
“If you get a few hundred thousand watching, great,” he said. “Will it be enough to change public policy? Frankly, I don’t think so.”
He cited the example of An Inconvenient Truth, long considered a landmark documentary that placed the then-little discussed issue of global warming and climate change into sharp focus, with a definite point of view. Still, in the wake of all the discussion and debate the film may have provoked, “very little has changed,” said Bunuel.
Impact Partners’ director of development, Kelsey Koenig, added that while her group actively supports issue-oriented content, such as the acclaimed doc E-Team, it may be more realistic to look at creating change on a more local level for the larger stories, via “grassroots efforts or town halls in the areas that are most affected.”
All panelists assembled said that in telling the stories of the migrants and their journeys, it was vitally important to offer viewers a sense of hope for the outcomes. Stefan Pannen, from Berlin Producers Film GmbH, said that with #MyEscape – which aired on WDR and Deutsche Welle among other ARD channels – the bulk of the stories were told using user generated content shot by the migrants themselves, providing an unfiltered scope of the perils and, in some cases, triumphs for those taking the risk to find new lives abroad.
“They become our heroes,” he said of the approach, intended to give the subjects a voice. “We empathize with them and their stories.”
For subject matter that, due to the saturation of news concerning it, runs the risk of colliding with viewer fatigue, creating that empathy is essential, said Bunuel. Exodus, a copro between Canal Plus and the BBC, also used footage shot by migrants, who were given smartphones complete with traceable GPS so that professional crews on the shoot could follow which subjects completed their journeys and which ones had to turn back.
Even though the approach invoked controversy when the project was first announced, Bunuel maintained it was necessary in order to fully capture the epic scope of each migrant’s story and of the crisis itself.
“Many times, the people said, ‘If something happens to us, tell our story,’” he said.
Sunny Side of the Doc continues up to and including June 23 in La Rochelle, France.