“I cried after my first big film was released,” she admitted, in hushed tones over the phone. This was no traditional case of post-partum blues. This was an award-winning filmmaker, who had spent years of her life, thousands of her own dollars, and probably a relationship or two to bring her poignant, hybrid, social issue documentary to the light of day (or in her case, a night on PBS following a limited theatrical release). “I wanted to change the world with that film. But even though the critics liked it, and people saw it, I had no proof that anything changed. Silence. I still don’t know if it had any impact at all.”
I had phoned my friend (let’s call her Maya) because I wanted to see how the indie crowd at the Sundance Film Festival would respond to my question: “You know your film is making a difference when…” I first attended Sundance in the late-80s when I was a script reader in Hollywood, and participated during the decade I was at the PBS series POV. But this year in my current role leading the Active Voice Lab for Story & Strategy I did more listening than screening. As a lifelong believer in the power of story — and other creative work – to advance social change, these days I’m spending a lot of time trying to prove it.
I can admit it now: early in my career when I wrote the “Evaluation” part of grant proposals I would wince, concoct a few bullets about the kind of change I wanted to see, and keep my fingers crossed that the funder would be so dazzled by what we were actually able to accomplish programmatically that they wouldn’t feel compelled to go back and reconcile it with our originally-stated objectives. During the first 10 years at Active Voice we commissioned outside firms and social scientists to give us qualitative feedback about our process and our partners’ satisfaction. We weren’t trying to impress funders; we simply couldn’t afford to repeat mistakes. But it wasn’t until Active Voice brought on a full time evaluator that were we able to identify and actually measure the kind of shifts we think films can contribute to. Read the rest of this entry »