When filmmaker and A-Doc co-founder, Grace Lee served on a panel where she was asked to make recommendations for a documentary impact grant, none of the Asian American films in consideration were selected. “Because either the proposal wasn’t strong enough, or there wasn’t quite a grasp of what an impact campaign really was,” Lee says, “And, it just sort of struck me, we’re making these documentaries but how are these actually reaching the communities that need them?”
Impact production essentially revolves around the creation of campaigns that are able to take documentaries to, as Lee puts it, “communities that need them.” One might argue that such campaigns make sure that a documentary film is able to go beyond the initial festival run and awards tally, and be of use to the participants in the film, their communities, and others like them. Most recently, Debbie Lum’s documentary Try Harder, a film about American high students as they navigate the emotionally draining college application process, put forth an impact campaign that allowed current students to come together and meet counselors and community members who could guide them through this seemingly life-altering process. An impact campaign, unlike a marketing campaign, takes a documentary to those who need it and not just the ones who can afford to see it.
The lack of understanding of this newer side of documentary filmmaking goes both ways. “A lot of the existing folks who worked in the impact field did not understand the Asian American community. There was a need to both educate the documentary field about community, but also cultivate potential impact producers within our community to amplify our stories,” adds S. Leo Chiang, who (with Lee) founded A-Doc in 2016. As A-Doc grew as a community, Lee and Chiang realized it was time to develop the ways in which the Asian American documentary filmmaker community was engaging with the idea of documentary impact because, they believe, it’s an integral part of the trajectory of a documentary film. Therein emerged the need to hire an Impact Director for the organization.
Filmmaker PJ Raval headed the search committee—that included producer Karin Chien, filmmaker Jin Yoo-Kim, A-Doc Manager Lailanie Gadia, and Working Films’ Director of Filmmaker Services and Impact, Gerry Leonard—for the role. Raval was excited that A-Doc’s first full-time hire wasn’t going to be an Executive Director or a Managing Director, but an Impact Director. “Guided by the phenomenal field survey and research of Sonya Childress and Karin Chien, we were thinking about an alternative governing structure, which would require us to think as a network, and not as a top-down organization. That would help us change the way people thought of impact production as a whole,” Raval explains. The idea was to not build an infrastructure that’d only replicate what’s already happening in other organizations, but build infrastructure within a space that is overlooked or perceived in very limited ways. “It was clear that we needed to create this position in order to serve the vision we have for A-Doc to flourish as a network,” says Raval.
After an exhaustive interviewing process, the hiring committee decided upon Cecilia R. Mejia (whose film Yellow Rose was a CAAMFest 2019 Centerpiece). Apart from being an impact producer, she has also worked in non-profit management and continues to teach classes on Social Impact Producing at NYU. The prevalent idea of impact campaigns has a project-based scope wherein each documentary has an impact campaign that runs for a limited amount of time, and then eventually fizzles out. So, how does that translate into an organizational vision, and how does one approach it in a way that serves a whole network, over a long period of time, instead of just specific films? “There is a recent trend, and I hope we can change through my work with A-Doc, where impact producing gets used as a marketing tool to get people to watch the film. The main challenge is to counter that,” Mejia answers. Both she and Raval agree that there is a need to bring documentaries out of their silos and use them to build long-standing relationships with social justice organizations who can then take these films to educate and raise awareness among members of the communities they serve. “The idea is to try and open up this pipeline between the filmmakers and the social justice field in a way that is like bridge building instead of doing it specifically for one or two projects. We want them to tell us what they need, what kind of films can we introduce them to, so that we can help them expand their visibility and reach” Chiang adds.
“There is immense power in documentaries. I took an Asian American studies class in college. As a Filipino-American, I didn’t know too much outside of Filipino culture. And in this course, we had one textbook, and the teacher showed us documentaries. I can’t remember the name of the textbook, but I remember all the documentaries,” Mejia says, “This kind of storytelling can really educate people in a very motivating way. The media won’t tell us that voter suppression is an Asian American problem, but these documentaries will.” She is already in talks with social justice organizations who could be potential partners for A-Doc, as she believes that “for an organization to thrive, one has to continue to build these long-lasting relationships, and keep responding to their needs.” For Mejia, who has run successful impact campaigns for various communities, the idea of being able to serve her own community of Asian American filmmakers and organizations is exciting. “I just feel like it’s our time,” she says, “It’s been our time for a very, very long time. I feel like making these connections, building these relationships is more of a duty. But a duty that I’m proud to take part in.”
For filmmakers like Raval, this approach of making documentary film impact an organizational goal opens up alternate, more democratic modes of not just distributing films but distributing power itself. “It changes the whole decision making process of who decides what themes a documentary should address, who decides who will be the audience, where will it get played, and so on,” he adds. “In the end, as storytellers, it holds us accountable and makes us all better at our jobs.”
Bedatri D. Choudhury works with documentary films and is a culture journalist. Born and raised in India, she lives in New York City.