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.