Film and Development: an interview with a filmmaker

Filming Community Health Workers in India. Copyright Matt Barwick.
Filming Community Health Workers in India. Copyright Matt Barwick.

Films open up a way of making a personal connection with someone in a way that other mediums can’t: by allowing you to look into someone’s eyes and listen to that person’s words in his or her own voice. That is part of what makes film so powerful.

But what makes a film stand out? What separates a nonprofit film or clip that engages viewers from one that feels a bit like propaganda?

According to Matt Barwick, a filmmaker, film tutor, and founder of Film in Action, it’s about allowing in details and layers – even the ones that might seem extraneous. It’s those elements that make a person become more human in front of our eyes. The details about the organization can filter in as well. But including backstories, communities, and context turn the person from a helpless recipient into a protagonist.

For example, Barwick was supervising and tutoring a group of students filming for an organization that provided clean water technology for communities in Cambodia. As part of the film, Barwick’s students interviewed a woman who had lost a leg from a Khmer Rouge bomb. Since then, she worked hard to make a new life for herself, and to make the most of her situation. And she still needed help with clean water. The local organization wanted to cut those details of her life story out. They only wanted to include the parts that seemed directly relevant to the water technology.

Barwick coached his students on how to handle pushback from NGOs that have a narrower vision. In the end, the students had to defend their reasons for keeping those details in the story. And it was an important lesson for them to learn.

Barwick explained to me that without them the viewer loses interest, and the film quickly becomes outdated. Allowing more of a person’s story into the narrative often means the film can be more useful for a longer period of time. That’s because programs may change. But a good story that’s about more than just the program can transcend the time constraints or a particular project. It also gives more dignity and humanity to the person.

As development professionals, we have to keep the instincts of the storytellers we work with in mind. While we know the programs better, if we’re working with a professional filmmaker, we should also trust that s/he know what s/he is doing. There’s probably a reason you hired that person, after all.

If you’re working with a restricted budget (which, let’s face it – most of us are), remember that personal connections are what make film powerful. Especially keep these things in mind as you’re trying to make donors happy. And remember that allowing human connections gives more dignity to the people you’re trying to help.

So what if you or your organization is thinking about using film? What other things should you take into account?

Barwick stated that two of the most important things is to make sure that the story is actually best told through film, and to keep the storyline simple. If you’re mostly trying to share numbers, general facts, and figures, then film may not be the best choice. Even if you’re profiling certain programs, a combination of writing and photography might be better. It all depends on the story and the context.

Another thing that Barwick warned against was trying to profile a lot of programs at the same time in a 6 minute clip. That’s a fast way to lose your audience and make the film lose its value quickly as the information becomes outdated.

In addition, there are some practical tips. Logistics can be a challenge, especially when traveling to remote places. So it’s best to think about how all those pieces will fit together from the design stage.

Translation can also be difficult. Barwick mentioned that often local staff have accompanied him. While they know multiple languages, they might not be professional translators. This means that they often end up putting their own interpretation into the translation.

Third, setting realistic expectations for the amount of time to complete the work is hugely important. It takes time to prepare everything. It takes effort to get an idea of potential stories and people to interview. And it takes time to travel, build relationships, to edit, etc. Expecting a finished product in just a couple of weeks is unrealistic and often reflects poor planning.

Related to this, Barwick also recommended allowing for flexibility in the schedule. Sometimes people on the interview lineup can be engaging and have a great presence in person but that doesn’t always translate to a good presence on camera. Some people freeze up. Others over exaggerate everything because they think that’s what makes for good camera presence.

These challenges aside, the power of storytelling through film is usually worth it.

Copyright Matt Barwick
Copyright Matt Barwick

Matt Barwick is a filmmaker and film tutor from south-east England. He focused on filmmaking throughout his degree and after graduating went on to establish a small media production company which specialized in film production for not-for-profits in the UK, both nationally and overseas. His interest in education and desire to share his skills and interest in film with others led him to establish Film In Action.

Film In Action is a creative, educational company established by filmmakers and educators from the UK and USA to offer innovative filmmaking courses to students from around the world. The intention is for the courses to benefit both the students and the partner organisation, through the production of a film and additional media for their communications. They provide the  environment, structure and guidance through which students can make quality documentary films which will have a positive impact on people’s lives, draw attention to important issues, innovations and social movements and give voice to undeserved communities.

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