For the past few months I have been happily attending screenings of our award-winning film The Year We Thought About Love, a 2015 documentary directed by Ellen Brodsky about an extraordinary LGBTQ youth theater troupe in Boston, my hometown. I get to observe audiences laughing, wiping away tears, and even dancing in their seats. The film follows troupe members as they transform their individual struggles into theater for social change. Among predominantly LGBTQ audiences, I can see smiles of recognition and feel that warm glow that comes from sitting in community with fellow travelers. Other audience members nod when the film's stars remind them of their friends and relatives. It's a great feeling to witness our film's emotional impact, a crucial first step towards acceptance and celebration. But does that make our film a success?
In this golden age of documentaries, 10,000 films are produced every year in this country with less than 1% making it into movie theaters, and, yes, we are part of the 99%. No offers from network or cable TV yet, either. But thanks to film festivals, in its first year our film has been seen in 21 states and 6 countries. And with sales to schools and libraries and home DVDs, we will reach many more.
That's impressive, right? Perhaps.
But our real measure of success is not how many people have seen our film, but how they think and feel and what they do afterwards. Can we reach more than our LGBTQ and allied choir? Well, our film is full of storytelling, in its own right a powerful way to capture attention and keep ideas and feelings alive in memory. Then there is our focus on "social impact" currently touted by funders like Working Films and its partners the Fledgling Fund and Chicken and Egg Pictures. This film is a good candidate for successful social impact; it has high emotion, undeniable truths, powerful voices, and a righteous cause. Our goal is to reach out to LGBTQ youth and influence their families and the adult providers who work with. . I'm happy to report we have begun to learn how to effect change, in a modest, trickle-up kind of way.
Take this example from our own work. Last March, Wheelock College, a liberal arts college with a mission to educate those who serve children and families, contacted us to ask about the bringing the film to their Boston campus. Bingo! Just the right audience of future providers knocked on our door. Director Ellen Brodsky began talks with political science Professor Sandra McEvoy and social work student Zach Kerr, and they organized several events around our screening. Ellen and I presented in a class on LGBT politics in film. Along with the film's stars, we ate dinner with members of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Cast members attended the screening and led a 45-minute intense talkback with a packed audience. That same evening students filmed interviews with each other about the current status of LGBTQ issues at Wheelock, and the campus queer group planned to take their ideas to the administration. In the end, organizers were proud of how much their activities were influencing faculty and student commitment to LGBTQ issues.
Here are some elements of a successful "make a difference" plan using a film screening:
1. Plan ahead and build support. It can start with one person's goals, but pull in all sorts of others as collaborators. McEvoy wanted filmmakers to speak in her class "to expose them and the campus to the powerful political nature of filmmaking." But she also reached out to "the performing arts department, Pride committee, communications, the counseling center, all of whom were interested for their own disciplinary reasons." This broad coalition raised the funds to bring the film and its representatives to campus.
2. Identify and target your audience(s) with proven promotions. Kerr asked the Multicultural Resource Center to co-sponsor. He wanted to spark interest in issues related not only to sexual minorities but also to race. "It's important for our students to see diverse populations, like the ones reflected in film. That's who we will be working with, and these issues should be addressed in the curriculum." Kerr's queer group wanted to increase discussion about LGBT issues with the campus as a whole, so individual professors were asked to invite their classes to the screening. His group targeted undergraduates with a social media blitz, and they found that one on one communication proved most successful. He reported, "A lot of people who should have seen the film did see it!"
3. Strike while the iron is hot. Host spin-off activities. While a general screening was the most visible use of the film on campus, bringing us to class gave some students the opportunity to delve deeper into issues surrounding the film. Interviewing students directly after the showing made it possible to catch immediate reactions and harness them for use in a recommendation for more inclusivity of LGBT issues in the curriculum. As a direct result of the screening and coalition building, several other faculty members have used the college library copy of the film's DVD. The combined activities brought about 20% of the student body into desired conversations. And, of course, most of those students were straight.
4. Take advantage of existing resources. Documentary films often provide additional materials for presenters. In our case, the film's website hosts a free online discussion guide that can help educational and community groups begin conversations and make changes provoked by our content. Another possibility is to seek out LGBT youth groups and services local to your area to help plan activities together, as they have in places like Portland, Oregon, Miami, Florida and Glasgow, Scotland.
It may well be too soon to know what level of impact our film has had on its audiences. We've got our evaluation feelers out there. And we are not alone in this work; we are part of the burgeoning number of the queer youth films that reflect a robust network of LGBTQ youth-serving agencies. In a way I guess what we are doing is subversive in the very best way--without blockbuster status we are quietly contributing to a rising tide of sympathetic attitudes and supportive actions on behalf of LGBTQ youth.