The Impact of Film on Development

I will be live tweeting and blogging from the Mashable and 92Y UN Week Digital Media Lounge Tuesday through Thursday. You can follow me on twitter to keep up with what is going on live, follow the #UNWeekDML and watch live by going to

Can film be used to change the lives of the underserved?  Caroline Baron of FilmAid and Lisa Russell of MDGFive made the case for yes at their UN Week Digital Media Lounge session yesterday titled, "Reel Impact: The Power of Film to Change Lives."  While Baron spoke of her work bringing film to the developing world, it was Russell who asked the most interesting questions.

Who is entitled to tell someone's story?  Am I qualified enough, do I know the nuances of a culture?  Am I more qualified than an Ethiopian to discuss abortion in Ethiopia because if my reach?

Great questions that should be addressed. 

As Russell struggled with the answer to her own questions, Baron affirmed her work by saying that asking those questions was what qualified her for the work.  I tend to agree with Baron, but was disappointed that the discussions about the questions posed by Russell were not pursued.  It is vital to the work of documentarians to know, understand and answer questions that are around the idea of if and how a story should be presented.  It is easy to show something that leaves you feeling guilty:

The Christian Children's fund does this quite well with their commercials and paid for specials.  They are not the norm, but they show how easy it is to simplify an issue through film and narration.  It was refreshing to hear the two women recognizing this dilemma, but I would have personally enjoyed an hour discussing the subject, not five minutes (can't blame them because they only had 30 min total).

In considering the showing of negatives in the developing world, the two turned their discussion towards how films can show people as they live, not simply as desperate and crying.  To address this, Russell helped to found MDGFive.  The space:

includes creative content by world-renowned musicians, poets, filmmakers and photographers. The site features a "remixer" that can be used to create short videos using a library of music tracks, spoken word, film and photos supplied by renowned mixed media artists from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Honduras, Brazil, Thailand, Pakistan and other countries.

Russell explained further that MDGFive works towards allowing people at local level to have a hand in the presentation of the issue and thus combat problem of only showing one side of the story and from external perspective.

The two concluded by noting that film can be used as a way to engage and begin discussions.  Baron showed this by sharing a few short films that were made in Kenyan refugee camps that range from malaria to young girls being married off by their families.  The program encourages groups to put together films based on their own storylines and efforts to put them together.

Overall, the panel was encouraging as the two women focused on how communities and people from the developing world can take part in the ways that they are represented to the rest of the world.  There final goal should be that people like Russell and Baron no longer need to go to Africa to make documentaries.

Russell's latest film titled "Not Yet Rain" addresses abortion in Ethopia.  She said, "The intention of film is to put human face on unsafe abortions."  Speaking to Ms. Russell today, she told me about a new project of hers:

I'm working on two film projects where I've hired filmmakers (who also contribute to MDGFive) in Tanzania, Singapore, South Africa and Sudan to shoot material for me, that I then repackage and edit here in NYC for a Western audience. So, I'm giving them work, decreasing my carbon footprint by not flying all over the world, and overall feel like I'm having more of a collaborative process with people on the ground.

You can watch the "Not Yet Rain" by going to