Campaigning documentaries: the thin line between passion and propaganda

Friday 6 November, 1.45pm until 3.15pm, Sheffield

Venue: Sheffield Doc/Fest, Site Gallery, 1 Brown Street, Sheffield, S1 2BX

Tickets: Entry to this session and all other festival sessions requires a delegate pass. For further information go to:

Many documentary makers are driven by a desire not only to document the world but to change it. So with the usual sources of funding drying up amid the recession, surely the opportunity to meet up with ‘social change film financiers’ is too good to miss? This is the idea behind radical new initiatives The Good Pitch, and Channel 4 Britdoc’s Campaigning NGOs and foundations as diverse as Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth, the NSPCC, Save the Children, the Soil Association and the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust are now active funders of new documentary.

But do these new funding models compromise editorial independence? Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s Storyville strand, has suggested there are ‘big dangers’ that NGOs could edge out impartial journalism with propaganda, however benign. NGOs may well be trusted by audiences, but shouldn’t documentary makers be as sceptical of these funders as they would be of any other multi-national corporations looking to promote their interests through film?

When filmmakers are encouraged to promise ‘associated outreach campaigns’ to maximise the impact of their film and its message on behalf of social action funders, what distinguishes documentary film-making from mere political advertising? When suggests ‘best practice’ means working on social-purpose films in order: ‘To try and change law and influence policy; To question the status quo; To care more about the world around them’, should we be inspired, or suspicious about new forms of audience manipulation? No-one would deny NGOs the right to make films, or indeed that documentary can be a powerful tool for social change, but what are the pitfalls of these new instrumental social action funding partnerships and the new passion for campaigning on film?

Ceri Dingle
director, WORLDwrite & WORLDbytes

Nick Fraser
commissioning editor, Storyville, BBC; series editor, Why Democracy?; executive producer, Why Poverty?; author, Why Documentaries Matter

Jess Search
chief executive, Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation; co-founder, Shooting People

Kevin Toolis
director and co-founder, manyriversfilm; director, Emmy-nominated Cult of the Suicide Bomber

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
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