Interview produced by Sharon Hartzell.
Media Rise recently spoke Owen Davies and Peter O’Brien, both film and media consultants who have extensive backgrounds in the nonprofit and media worlds, including DC’s Environmental Film Festival. Environmental. Owen and Peter are co-organizers of this year’s festival. With support from the DC office of Motion Picture and Television Development, they are hosting a free screening of Watermark, an award-winning documentary about humans’ relationship with water around the world. See it with us on the big screen on Wednesday, September 30, 2015 (RSVP).
Media Rise: What’s your background, and how did you get where you are today?
Owen Davies: I’ve spent the last decade working in both media and nonprofit/philanthropic organizations. I started working in documentary film in 2005, as a researcher on a Bill Moyers documentary. It was a once in a lifetime experience that inspired me to pursue a career working in impact media. From there, I went on to work on a number of films, on topics ranging from the use of torture in the war on terror, to the treatment of immigrants from the Middle East in western Europe. For the last several years, I’ve been working as one of the organizers of the DC Environmental Film Festival, an annual event held each March. With EFF being the world’s largest convener for environmental filmmakers, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to meet talented individuals who are creating both amazing films and meaningful impact in their communities.
Peter O’Brien: I began working in documentary film production in New York in 2001. From 2008-14, I was the Executive Director of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, which has grown to become the largest film festival in Washington, and the largest environmentally focused film festival in the US. Since 2014, Owen and I have been working together on independent consulting projects to help environmental films have the greatest impact possible. I also currently serve on the board of directors of EFF, and of the Green Film Network, an international consortium of film festivals.
MR: What current projects are you working on, and what do you dream of doing in the future?
We are currently working with a few independent film projects focused on environmental themes. Our goal with our current and future projects is to help with any and all aspects of environmental media production and distribution. There are many great filmmakers out there, and many important issues and stories to be told, but the resources to get films made and widely seen are scarce and increasingly competitive. We are working creatively to help strengthen the role of film to illuminate environmental challenges and solutions, and we are connecting an array of talented people to help make this happen.
MR: How can environmental nonprofits leverage film and media to advance their mission?
Owen: When I think of the most successful media projects produced by advocacy organizations, they have four things in common. First, they’re well produced. A project can be simple, and even inexpensive to produce, but it has to have professional production values to be credible to a wide audience. Second, they make a straightforward yet compelling point, with a specific call to action that helps the organization achieve its strategy. Third, they create content that is easily shareable. Feature length documentaries are great at creating deep connections with audiences. But shorter videos and content designed specifically for social media can amplify the message, and reach a large audience that may not be willing to watch a full 90-minute film. Finally, for a film to have impact, it has to be seen. Organizations commissioning media to advance their mission should have a clear strategy for audience building/engagement as they conceptualize their projects.
Peter: Regarding film, I think organizations need to take a creative approach. The public is awash with media messages, which through sheer volume often drown each other out. Nonprofits should focus on stories that are truly interesting and compelling. Quality is paramount, in the sense of a good story well told. What’s most essential is finding the stories and the characters that will move an audience, and to present them in an artful and effective manner. Good filmmaking is hard to achieve, but if done right it has the potential to change attitudes and move the public conversation about the environment.
MR: What are some challenges you encounter when trying to inspire but not overwhelm an audience, and how do you overcome them?
Owen: With the countless ecological challenges facing the planet, it’s easy to come away from some “environmental” films with a sense of hopelessness. In my experience, I’ve noticed audiences want to learn about the issues, but they also want to come away with concrete ideas on how they can make a positive change. It’s important for audiences to understand the enormity of the challenges we face, but also to know that there are often solutions. Media that gives people a sense of hope about the future often make for a more lasting connection.
Peter: Each filmmaker has a distinct motivation for his or her work; for example it might be to report, rather than to inspire. Depending on the subject matter and its urgency, it might be more important to shake an audience out of its complacency, rather than soften the tone of the film. But in general it’s important to understand whom your audience is, and whom you’re trying to reach with a film or an event. Is it a general audience, looking to be inspired and to learn? Is it an audience of experts, who want to see a different or deeper side of a specific issue? Is it an audience of activists or environmentalists, trying to strengthen their community or looking for information to help them in their efforts? Above all, films are likeliest to inspire if they have a compelling story, well told.
MR: What are some under-used but effective approaches to reach people who aren’t already environmentalists? What emotionally resonates with people who aren’t already passionate about the environment?
Owen: One way to reach audiences with environmental content is to relate it to their daily lives. Films that look at local impacts of environmental issues are often the most successful in this regard. By focusing on the impact these environmental stories have on individual communities, audiences can often make the connections to what’s going on in their own back yards. For example, a story about the community impact of fracking in Pennsylvania can resonate with audiences in places like Texas, Upstate New York, or even Eastern Europe.
Peter: Another example along these lines is religious communities, even fairly conservative ones. In recent years, many have taken on the environment as a priority in a way that would have been surprising in the past. Reaching out to different and unexpected communities is key, as everyone genuinely has a stake in these issues.
Watermark is showing on September 30 at Carnegie Institution for Science, as part of the Media Rise festival. Free entry, RSVP to claim your seat.