The Rise of the Social Change Film, <i>Stand in My Shoes</i>

Through our film project,, we're taking a hard look at empathy. We're asking, how important is it? What are its limits, especially when pitted against the competing interest of self-preservation?
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It's an age-old situation: You are deeply moved by something unjust, and you fly forth, charged by the desire to do something positive and armed with little aside from your creativity. Soon, you face the challenges of any social entrepreneur: boot-strapping, finding finance, making the right connections, sustaining momentum, sacrificing hours, days, years for your worthy cause, and more importantly, figuring out how to deliver your message in a way that inspires people to act. For independent filmmakers like ourselves, this has just been a way of life.

But here's what's different now. The past few years have been witness to an exciting and decisive change in the purpose of the social change film; increasingly, documentaries are being used as springboards for perpetual real-world projects, with extensive digital grassroots global outreach via the social media sphere. This intersection of local activism, film, and the Internet can be a powerful meeting place for change and a means of jump-starting action on these unique projects.

To make what we're referring to more concrete, look at the example of the "Free Hugs" viral video, which captured a young man holding a FREE HUGS sign in a mall. His mission: to brighten a stranger's day, and make the world a nicer place. With 72 million (and counting) YouTube views and a worldwide fandom in the millions, it is now a bone fide "movement" which includes Free Hugs Days, YouTube Inspirational Video Award of the Year, and resources for those in emotional distress.

A more recent example is the film Bully and its outreach component, The Bully Project -- the driving force behind "Stop Bullying: Speak Up" rallies and the distributor of curriculum guidelines and law proposals. Together, this media-activist combo has squarely placed the topic of bullying at dinner tables across the country and incited many to action offline. With today's Internet-driven world making the shifting of resources and the mobilizing of communities more efficient than ever before, the simple "like-my-Facebook-page" call to action at the end of a movie is no longer enough.

We, a group of filmmakers headed by documentary veteran Kurt Engfehr (Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Yes Men), have watched these changes with excitement as we have developed our own project. We are fascinated by people's motivation for creating or resolving problems, particularly ones of a global scale. This fascination is what has propelled us to understand human nature. And the case studies we've followed -- like "Free Hugs" -- have given us the resolve to see that our film will have a life beyond the theater.

The film Bully has done brilliantly in drawing attention to bullying in schools. But this lack of regard for another person's welfare in our world is not limited to the adolescent schoolyard experience; it occurs everywhere. It's a reason over one million workers are absent from their jobs due to workplace harassment every year. It's a reason high-profile bankers were able to sleep at night while millions of people suffered because of the financiers' profit-motivated decisions. It's a reason peace talks continually break down in the Middle East. We wanted to understand why this disregard occurs.

In our search of potential causes, we happened across numerous studies that highlighted the importance of empathy in fostering social change. And the more we looked, the more we saw reasons to believe lack of empathy is at the heart of -- and responsible for the collective failure to act -- on almost all social ills.

We're discovering that, far from being a soft issue, empathy has, as global business revolutionary and film interviewee Euro RSCG CEO David Jones says, "never been more relevant." Jones goes on to explain the importance of empathy in business practice:

The most successful businesses in the future will increasingly be those who are the most socially responsible. This is especially the case in the world of radical transparency that social media has created, where transparency and authenticity are critical. Those with the ability to listen to their consumers' concerns and respond in a meaningful, socially responsible way will be the winners.

Through our film project, Stand In My Shoes, we're taking a hard look at empathy. We're asking, how important is it? What are its limits, especially when pitted against the competing interest of self-preservation? And how do we effectively increase our capacity for it, particularly in light of research released in 2011 that documented sharply declining levels of empathy and compassion?

One of the most exciting parts of this new breed of film is the rise of the participatory expert. No longer acting in a supporting role, film interviewees and collaborators have become partners in the development of off-screen projects. University of California, San Diego (UCSD) neuroscientist Dr. William Mobley provides a perfect example of this hands-on expert. In working with us, Dr. Mobley realized the wide ranging possibilities that digital media, film, and activism present to the science world. He is in the process of founding the Science & Education Center for Empathy and Compassion (SEEC), which will unite these elements in a series of a worldwide studies on empathy and compassion. Of one of the first projects in queue, Mobley says:

We're going to a whole new level with this: discovering how to replicate the highly active empathy and compassion brain states that are present in the brains of Buddhist monks -- typically after 10,000 hours of mediation -- in the brains of ordinary people via neuro-feedback technologies. If we can do this, we may have some real world applications in the workplace, in boardrooms, in peace talks, in schools. It could profoundly change the way we interact with one another, but there's a lot more we need to integrate before we reform institutions at that level.

SEEC has radical implications for the future of conflict resolution, and we are committed to its mission--so much so that we are dedicating a portion of our film's profits to its construction. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, currently in the US visiting UCSD on his Compassion Without Borders tour, is in contact with Dr. Mobley to discuss endorsement.

There is a genuine sense of urgency about this issue, and a hunger for solutions. That's why we're not simply going to showcase the problem. We're on a mission to see what can be done to shift our social structures to become more empathic, and we're in communication with a slew of brilliant people who have their own theories as to how go about it, people such as Bill Drayton (CEO, Ashoka Foundation), Jim Carrey, Eckhardt Tolle, John Raatz (founders, Global Alliance of Transformational Entertainment), Marianne Williamson (one of TIME's 50 Most Influential Women), Jeremy Rifkin (author, The Empathic Civilization), Margot Cairnes (author, Approaching the Corporate Heart), and Mary Gordon (founder, Roots of Empathy).

We've made it our job as filmmakers to examine empathy in a way that has never been done before. Now, we're taking the film making process to a whole new level by inviting the world to collaborate online with us on the film's production. Let's really build a culture of empathy together. And let's not passively wait for solutions; let's actively seek them out. Let's do it NOW!

To find out more about the Stand In My Shoes project, go to:

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