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Should We Rate Activist Documentaries by Whether They Inspire People to Act?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire July 8, 2014 at 11:28AM

A new method of measuring a film's political effectiveness suggests "preaching to the choir" gets a bad rap.
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Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth"
Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth"

Participant Media, the politically progressive company founded by eBay's Jeff Skoll, has been developing quantitative tools to evaluate how effective its movies are at fomenting social change, a development that has some filmmakers crying foul.

To get the answers it wants, Participant is developing a measuring tool that it calls the Participant Index, assisted in the effort by the Annenberg school’s Media Impact Project. In rough parallel to the Nielsen television ratings, the still-evolving index compiles raw audience numbers for issue-driven narrative films, documentaries, television programs and online short videos, along with measures of conventional and social media activity, including Twitter and Facebook presence.

The two measures are then matched with the results of an online survey, about 25 minutes long, that asks as many as 350 viewers of each project an escalating set of questions about their emotional response and level of engagement.

Did it affect you emotionally? Did you share information about it? Did you boycott a product or company? Did it change your life?

The Participant Index ranks movies and TV shows on two 100-point scales, one for "emotional involvement" and another for whether it provoked viewers to take concrete action: Jehane Noujaim's "The Square," about the recent political upheaval in Egypt, scored a 97 in the first category but only 87 in the second, for an average of 92.

It's not surprising that documentarians like Robert Greene, whose "Actress" explores the porous boundary between professional acting and the performance of everyday life, recoil from the notion that movies can be reduced to a single numerical value, especially one that effectively boils down to "How well would this movie work as an Upworthy post?" One of Participant's most commendable characteristics has been its willingness to finance movies, especially fiction features, that don't emphatically underline their messages. Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" may, as the Times article puts it, "counsel... civic engagement," but it does so with a relatively light touch, and movies like Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion" and Breck Eisner's remake of "The Crazies" keep their politics on the level of subtext.

Participant has an explicit agenda, and it only makes sense to try and evaluate how effectively that agenda is being met — whether they are, in effect, getting their money's worth. It's certainly fair to wonder whether this kind of measurement might lead to more heavy-handed proselytizing, more documentaries that end with the equivalent of a "Click here to save our planet" button. But there's a ray of hope:

Over all, said Marc Karzen, a social media entrepreneur whose company, RelishMix, advises film and television marketers, Participant will most likely affirm what is becoming clear to conventional film studios: Impact can be less about persuasion than nudging an audience to go where it is already pointed.

“You have to embrace your fans, not shout at them,” Mr. Karzen said. “They need to be inspired to spread the word.”

In other words, you have to preach to the choir, and not about hellfire and brimstone. A movie like "Fahrenheit 9/11,"  may rile up audiences — and reap financial rewards — with its polemical claims, but its impact in even the medium term seems to be virtually nil. Ditto the Participant-financed "An Inconvenient Truth," which brought a slew of facts to an debate that, at least in the political arena, plays out largely in the realm of rhetoric and emotion. (Climate-change deniers don't have facts on their side, but they unfortunately don't seem to need them.) Movies can change minds, but more often they help to sharpen them, inspiring and focusing them, although I do wonder whether short-term involvement might in fact be the enemy of long-term political involvement. (See Brecht, Bertholt.) The best political documentaries leave viewers with concerns that can't be salved with a quick donation or a signature on an online petition. They ask their audiences not only to make change, but to change themselves.


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