Strategic Impact Documentaries and the Potential of Storytelling to Protect Our Oceans

Character-driven strategic impact documentary: Craig Foster and Octopus vulgaris in My Octopus Teacher

There is no doubt that climate change is a problem. Neither can we deny that our oceans are massively threatened. But the truth is, proving these facts with science is not always sufficient to motivate change. In fact, it seldom is sufficient. Because change requires more. Change requires policymakers to act. And that, in turn, often requires public pressure. Which requires awareness. Now, this is quite simplified, but you get the point: in order for change to happen, we cannot approach climate change or biodiversity loss from one single perspective or discipline. Environmental issues in particular have gained momentum as political and social issues, requiring action from the sciences, from policymakers, from the public, and the creatives. And when the scientists and creatives start working together, then complex issues can be communicated to the general public, to the non-scientists and non-conservationists that maybe can’t quite grasp the extent of the issues we are facing. The threats that the ocean and its rich biodiversity are facing.

Out of sight, out of mind is an issue putting the successful conservation and protection of the marine biome at risk. We know, and the science is clear about this, that we are on the best way to losing 90 % of all coral reefs by 2050 (IPCC 2019). Yet issues like that are hard to grasp because most of us don’t see corals bleaching or kelp forests disappearing. We are not connected to these ecosystems. So how do we communicate science without creating a feeling of hopelessness? How do we get people to understand the urgency of these threats, and how do we get the general public excited about ocean conservation? Filmmakers and other creatives have the ability to take us on a journey, to expose us to new perspectives, and so visual storytelling started being recognized as a great and powerful tool to communicate science in an engaging way.

Communicating coral bleaching. Chasing Coral.

The notion of impact and strategic impact documentaries

The term documentary was coined by the British film producer John Grierson in the 1930s. Grierson recognized the potential of activist filmmaking and documentaries to “influence the ideas and actions of people in ways once reserved for church and school”. Filmmakers can reach an audience that allows them to present and communicate issues in an effective, touching, and urgent way, advocating for behavioral and political change. And strategies have been developed to impact the audience intentionally rather than coincidentally. This is where strategic impact documentaries come into play.

Strategic impact documentaries, or social impact documentaries, aim at creating change using bottom-up approaches such as public awareness and public engagement. Impact, here, can be referred to as “social and cultural change that has been driven by a documentary film and its associated campaign strategy. This can include a perceivable shift in behaviors, beliefs, and values within a group, system or community, as well as legislative or policy shifts on a government, organization or institution”. Under the notion of impact, organizations such as DOC SOCIETY and The Fledgling Fund have evolved to create and support media projects that educate and mobilize the public.

The five dimensions of social change. Framework created by the Fledgling Fund

These five dimensions of impact were developed by The Fledgling Fund to assess the impact of a documentary. The framework emphasizes the importance of storytelling at the core of strategic impact documentaries. A compelling story can be measured by looking at festival acceptance, awards, reviews, sales, and more. It is the first step of community engagement. Storytelling is important because it enables us to dive into another world for a while. It allows us to go freediving in the Great African Seaforest and scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. 

Awareness – the next building block – is important for individual change. How many people is your documentary reaching? How diverse is its audience? What does the press write about it? 

Engagement is proactive feedback from the audience – response letters, Take Action Campaigns, discussions and dialogues initiated.

Stronger movement – as the outreach of a documentary is growing, organizations and institutions may advocate the film and collaborate. You see, the film is gaining momentum and, ideally, has the capacity to initiate policy discussion. 

Social change in form of policy and behavioral change – the last and ultimate goal. Look at the example of Chasing Coral, a documentary that was just the start of a series of petitions, educational programs, and partnerships. Take a look at their Year One & Beyond update here to get an idea of the five dimensions of change in action!

Chasing Coral – One Year & Beyond. 

Two must-watch examples

Character-driven documentaries like My Octopus Teacher and Chasing Coral are great examples of strategic impact documentaries addressing some of the threats our oceans are facing. You see this man, Craig Foster, going freediving with an octopus every day, following the animal’s life cycle and building an emotional connection. And suddenly you have an image in your head, an idea about the kelp forest and its inhabitants. Or you follow Jeff Orlowski and his team manually recording major bleaching events spending 700 + hours underwater. Suddenly you can see corals bleaching and disappearing. Both documentaries use storytelling as a tool to generate empathy and motivate the audience to support the protection of the ocean, in one way or another. Both documentaries manage to get a broad audience excited about the underwater world. “If a film does not connect with its audience and generate empathy, it is very unlikely to gain the traction that an impact campaign requires to make change.”, writes media and impact strategist Patricia Finneran. And both documentaries have seen great success, winning numerous documentary and audience awards. Not to forget that My Octopus Teacher won the Oscar for best documentary this year.

“We tell stories that connect people to the wild, motivating them to become part of the regeneration of our planet.”

Sea Change Project

Impact documentaries such as Chasing Coral, My Octopus Teacher, A Plastic Ocean, and the most recently released and widely discussed documentary Seaspiracy help to create a narrative around environmental issues. The challenge then remains to measure the impact. Film prices are great, but they don’t help to fight ocean pollution. Not directly. But great exposure to a wide audience creates momentum and awareness. People start talking about these issues. Partnerships with national and international organizations can be built. A discourse is created which goes beyond the creative work of filmmaking. The five dimensions of change. Look at the example of Chasing Coral: filmmakers and producers worked alongside well-known scientist, including Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg who is a leading scientist involved in the reports by the IPCC, and Dr. John ‘Charlie’ Veron, who is essentially known as the “Godfather of Corals” as he discovered 20 percent of the world’s known coral species. The main cast Richard Vevers founded The Ocean Agency, an organization that uses creativity and partnerships with large companies such as Google to get issues out there (did you know that you can go on a virtual dive on Google Earth? Thank Richard and his team for ‘Underwater Street View’). Craig Foster, main cast in My Octopus Teacher, and Ross Frylinck founded the Sea Change Trust, an organization that is involved in research, work on increasing marine protected areas (MPAs) in South Africa, and which aims at reconnecting people to the wild through visual storytelling. In both cases, strategic impact documentaries have significantly increased the outreach of the NGOs and essentially helped to bridge the gap between science and the public.

10 thoughts on “Strategic Impact Documentaries and the Potential of Storytelling to Protect Our Oceans

  1. Thank you for writing this blog post. As you mentioned, storytelling is so important to start any sort of social change! Especially for things we don’t immediately feel connected with.
    As humans feel more connected with animals that ‘look’ like us, documentaries like the ones you mentioned really help us see and understand the underwater world better. This way of storytelling really helped people to feel more connected with corals and fish and increased awareness of the threats to the underwater world.
    I think there is also a need for documentaries (or other forms of storytelling) for insects. If the decline of insect populations continue at the current rate, some regions will lose one-third of their insect population in the coming decades (https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/studies-confirm-alarmiang-insect-decline). Most of us probably know about the bee population declining, because we need bees for pollination, so we need them directly for our food supply, and we think they are cute. This makes us feel more connected with them. However, for many insects, we need to ‘form’ that connection before we will take action to solve the problem.

    I think we live in an age, with social media and Netflix, in which it is relatively easy for people to get to know environmental problems. These encounters form to start for people to feel a connection with, for example, coral reefs across the ocean. Especially, for people who do not normally would be able to come in contact with certain species or habitats, because, for example, they don’t have the money to travel, social media and documentaries really open up a new world for them to discover. Hopefully, enough connections will be made, so we can really start social change before it is too late.

    You mention that compelling stories should not leave you feeling hopeless, which I totally agree with. Without hope, there will never be any change. I personally really liked that the Netflix series Our Planet ended every episode with tips on how to get involved and how to learn more.

    I have one question for you: where do you think we are when it comes to climate change on the 5 dimensions of social change ladder?
    I would say we are in the last stage, social change, but the failed COPs of the last year and countries and companies failing to actually become more sustainable make me wonder if we are really at stage 5 already or not just yet.

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  2. Thank you for your blogpost, Gigi! While the impact of such documentaries cannot be minimized, I think there is an important case to make for the necessity for these messages to be communicated via mainstream media as well. With this, I mean that sit-coms, daily news, and bestseller books that don’t focus solely on environmental issues should also deal with these topics as part of their stories or narratives. Often we focus on issues such as climate change and biodiversity loss in a vacuum. When watching ‘My Octopus Teacher’ we become engulfed in this one octopus and its relationship with this man. It is a very powerful story, and it evokes a lot of emotion, but it doesn’t seep into our daily lives easily. This hyperfocus on one specific environmental issue at the time, while very necessary to gain proper understanding and become committed to corals, the fishing industry… can give us a false sense of separation between environmental problems and their relationship to the bigger picture. I hope in the near future we see a compelling narrative of our relationship with the earth (and how that closely related to our relationship with other humans) reflected in popular culture. As well as some more of these beautiful documentaries!

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  3. Thanks, Gigi for the thought-provoking blog post! It really made me think about the absence of climate change as a theme in mainstream cinema. As Ines pointed out, it would be great if mainstream media, in general, would give more attention to the issue, but fiction film specifically stands out to me. Films are a reflection of the time in which they were produced, they are always produced in a context – so where are the (fiction) films on climate change? “When good and also commercially successful film and television is produced that deal with themes such as racism, sexual exploitation, genocide, drug addiction, corruption and mental health problems, then why not stories based on the climate change crisis?” The lack of climate change-related fiction films is really quite strange.
    This article (https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200416-why-does-cinema-ignore-climate-change) blames the lack of representation of climate change in mainstream cinema on the hesitance of directors to directly blame the audience for what is happening in the film. It also doesn’t really allow for an easy resolution. This article (https://time.com/5953382/climate-change-tv-movies/) on the other hand suggests that it’s because climate change hits too close to home, partly because it is still happening in the real world.
    It’s such a pity when you think of the potential these films could have. As you describe in your post, cinema can help in visualizing a story and exposing the audience to new perspectives. With fiction films, you lose the potential of sharing a lot of information in a condensed way, but in exchange, you can make the audience identify so much more with those affected by climate change. This is especially important when it comes to the issue of climate change because this can feel so far removed and abstract, and when those most affected are not the majority of the movie-going audience. Film can remove these barriers, all of a sudden bringing the issue that much closer, and forcing us to empathize with others. I really hope the next few years will bring some good climate change films, it’s about time.

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  4. Very interesting blog post! I actually think this topic relates somewhat to my own topic (How our experiences with nature affect our attitudes towards climate change), as one might compare watching a documentary with having a virtual nature experience. As Noor commented on my blog, virtual nature experiences that do not show destroyed nature don’t have much of an impact on pro-environmental behaviour, while those that show destructed nature do. I wonder if something similar goes for documentaries, that traditional nature documentaries that simply show life in nature have very little effect, while maybe those that do show how this nature is destroyed have more effect. Also, with VR nature experiences, it seems to be important that people first get an opportunity to appreciate the nature before seeing it destroyed. Do you know if it’s similar for documentaries, that documentaries that show a lot of the beauty of nature, before (or while) talking about its destruction, have more of an effect than documentaries that only show destruction. Is there any research on this, and if not, what do you think?

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  5. Gigi, this is so great. I really enjoyed reading it.

    I just wanted to add that documentaries have been vital in not only shedding light on what is happening to the oceans but the effects on marginalized groups from large-scale Western pollution. I am even guilty of it. I had not known the extent of the damage being done in Kenya until I saw a short about it. There are small groups all over the world who suffer from rising sea levels and pollution far more than the rest of us but because they are often small marginalized groups we do not hear about them until there is a documentary. Even then, there is no guarantee that the documentary benefitted them in any way.

    This entire situation, the need for documentaries, points to a much larger problem. I believe that the success and need for them is a massive red flag. It is a direct result of a lack of transparency from government and corporate agencies. I remember in Seaspiracy they even found linkages between corporations and the very charities and activists tied to ocean conservation. There were efforts to hide the problems rather than solve them.

    We sometimes forget that the government is meant to represent us and our best interests. That is what they are there to do. However, when we see and need people to ‘bridge the gap between science and the public’ we know that we are being failed. It is a government responsibility. We have all sorts of laws that ‘infringe’ on our daily tasks. Even something like a seatbelt. The same goes for cigarettes. We as a public are largely informed of this by government agencies. So why is it that when it comes to something this large scale we rely on individuals to provide this information? Some even risking their lives and well being to do so. I remember the pang of guilt I felt for those west African fishermen because the filmmakers could leave but they would be in danger for a long time after that documentary was released. That is just so wrong. Anyway, I think this has turned into an emotional rant about the failure of the government to inform us and more importantly protect us. I really loved this blog post! Thanks Gigi.

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  6. Thank you for your feedback Gabby, and thank you for adding the importance of documentaries for marginalized groups, that is such an important factor to consider!
    Documentaries creating awareness about the threats that our oceans are facing are certainly only one example, there are so many issues that need to be discussed and where awareness is lacking.

    Your point about the consequences for the people mentioned in the documentaries got me thinking – it is actually quite hard to shine a light on certain issues in places where criticizing the government may have massive consequences for an individual… Also how can a film crew best create the content in a respectful manner, without putting people at risk… (I also get this image of white saviorism in my head which filmmakers need to take into consideration…)

    I do believe that the media have a growing responsibility to create a discourse around environmental and social issues, and I think that we all have the responsibility to educate ourselves about these issues. In saying so, I do see your point about the responsibility of governments to create transparency. There is not enough emphasis on issues, for example like you mentioned the Western pollution in Kenya and other regions in the world. It is too easy to get this sense of “out of sight, out of mind”. So documentaries can bring these issues into sight, to some extent, but they shouldn’t have to, right? I hope I understood that point correctly!

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  7. Thank you for your comment, Johanna! And it is indeed very interesting to look at both our blogposts together!
    Regarding Noor’s comment about destroyed versus pristine nature presented to an audience… I think a balance is needed (as with most things in life). I think in order to get children and teenagers, or society in general, excited about conservation, you need to see the beauty of the wilderness, of pristine nature. Sort of like “wow, this is what I want to do later, this is what I want to protect”. The urgency of environmental degradation can’t be ignored, of course, because we need to become aware that rapid changes are needed to protect nature. So yes, like you said, I think documentaries need to get an audience excited about an ecosystem, make the audience fall in love, before saying “hey, this place you just saw is at risk! We need to do something!”. Otherwise, people tend to feel hopeless, like it’s too late, anyway.

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  8. Thank you for your comment, Nicky!
    I totally agree with you and Inés – we shouldn’t separate documentaries and fiction so strictly. If issues such as sexism, racism, climate change, were discussed in mainstream media, these topics would certainly reach a wider audience. However, I do think that it is also important to consider mental health in regards to the exposure of societal and environmental issues. I think many people involved in activism may know this feeling of being “overexposed” to all the issues surrounding us and feeling overwhelmed. It’s the same as watching the news too much. Yes, these issues are so so important and should be represented in mainstream media, but not to an extent that we get numbed by it, or start feeling anxious watching a movie. There needs to be a healthy balance between creating awareness/exposure, and recreational “time off” from this exposure, don’t you think?

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  9. Thank you for your comment, Inés!
    I fully agree that environmental and social issues should influence the mainstream media to reach a wider audience and because it is simply part of our life, it is not a separate topic, only to be discussed in the classroom or when you feel like it. However, as I already mentioned in the reply to Nicky, I think that a certain space that allows us to avoid “overexposure” to these topics is also important, for the sake on mental health and to avoid feeling numbed by the constant exposure to these issues. But again, I agree that environmental issues shouldn’t merely be a matter of “well, today I feel like thinking about it, so I’ll watch a documentary”. They are part of our everyday life. I think that storytelling has the potential to be included in the wider narrative of the mainstream media in a way that is gentle enough to not overwhelm us, but to remind us that there is something we need to work on.

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  10. Thank you for your reply!
    I very much agree that we need to shine a light on the importance of insects, and how rapidly we lose populations! This is a good example of a topic where a broad majority of people is probably not aware of how important insects are, and why. If this awareness can be created, that I would expect an increase in the willingness to make changes and to put public pressure on governments.

    Strategic impact documentaries being available on, for example, Netflix is a great way to reach a wider audience. We are so disconnected from nature, with a majority of the population living in cities. Yet, I don’t think that digital exposure can compensate for the “real” experience of nature, which links very nicely to Johannas blog post.

    Regarding your question: I think climate change is represented in each of the 5 dimensions because it is a complex issue that cannot be solved solely by governments. Well, to a certain extent governments could achieve a lot (if they would act…), but the other four dimensions are required to a) create public awareness and b) creature pressure by having a large audience and cooperations demanding change.

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