Change the World with_Documentaries?


Despite being an educated person, there have been many times during the module of Critical Issues in Campaigning where I have felt ignorant and naïve to world events and the intricacies of and connections between topical issues. There is a growing list of campaigns I have to explore – inspired by my classmates and tutors. Each have their own ‘truth’ causing a problem or difficulty for someone else. As we discuss how media impacts on the outcome of campaigns it got me thinking, are these inconvenient truths best exposed by documentaries?   

Documentaries represent a form of ‘post-modern campaigning’ (Norris, 2000, p147-149 as seen in Baringhorst, 2009, p16), in that they are created by involving communication specialists, aim to have quick and high reach to audiences, involve news value material, involve people and celebrities sharing their views. Just as Baringhorst (2009, p10) says about campaigns, documentaries (a campaign tactic) give information, aim to get people talking, aim to change public opinion to accept certain principles, that causes are necessary, and mobilisation is required.

The public response to the documentary Blackfish was the ‘tipping point’ (Gladwell, 2000) to the public joining animal welfare campaigners on issue of marine mammal welfare. The facts had been available long before. Did the facts threaten peoples’ identity, as this blog describes as a phenomenon? Or, this form of media just got people talking and create a natural ‘outside track‘ (Hilder, 2007, p22) mobilisation?

The #OneWelfare and #OneHealth initiatives (where the links between animals, people and environment are considered) came to mind when a classmate explained that it was the documentary Cowspiracy which was the tipping point to her becoming vegan – because this was one way she could have the greatest impact on climate change.


Image from Cowspiracy Website

Frontline Club, whose 2016 event ‘Making Change: Documentary Filmmaking and Social Impact‘ discussed documentaries as a catalyst for social change. They admit documentaries can create empathy, illuminate new perspectives, activate emotions – but does it fuel action? Some say it depends on the reach, engagement and influence of a compelling story (Hotdocs, no date, p10).

I believe documentaries present a range of possibilities to communicate on a social change issues. Blackfish presented evidence it can create a social movement. Cowspiracy presented evidence that it can create change in one individual (that I know of!). Other documentaries, as Steven Spielberg said in his quote, can educate an entire generation.

What’s your view on the power of a documentary to expose inconvenient truths?

View these to decide:

Greenpeace’s environmental movement is documented in How to Change the World. Here you’ll be exposed to the many ‘mind bombs’ tactics used to shock viewers and ultimately create behaviour change.

  • Netflix’s Ivory Game enables viewed to obtain an insight look into ivory trafficking in order to educate people about the crisis and show that humans can be the solution to a human problem

Other suggested sites about documentarians to explore:


Baringhorst et al. (2009). Political Campaigning on the Web: Political Campaigning in Changing Media Cultures – Typological and Historical Approaches. Columbia University Press. Available from [Accessed 2 January 2017]

Gladwell, M. (2000). Tipping Point: how little things make a big difference. Boston. Little Brown.

Hilder, P. et al (2007) Contentious citizens – civil society’s role in campaigning for social change. The Young Foundation. Available from  [Accessed 2 January 2017].

Hotdocs. (no date). Documentary Impact: Social Change Through Storytelling. Inspirit Foundation. Available from  [Accessed 2 January 2017]

This blog is part of my MA in Media, Campaigns and Social Change with the University of Westminster.


2 thoughts on “Change the World with_Documentaries?

  1. Patricia Ng'ang'a says:

    Great post, you analyse and give very good examples. Visual representation when done right is a great tool, story telling in documentaries have mobilised social change in individuals and masses. In this digital era more than ever social change campaigners have to harness different ways of communicating to people and documentary is one way…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. freedomsakeblog says:

    Interesting post! I find that documentaries (but also films) can teach us a lot.
    One of the documentaries that influenced me the most is “The salt of the Earth” by Wim Wenders about Sebastiao Salgado, a Brazilian social documentary photographer. He is also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
    I believe that educating new generations (through documentaries as well in this case) is really important and I think it’s key to social change. However, Chris Rose, in his “How to win campaigns. 100 steps to success” explains that activists shouldn’t try to educate people, because it’s not part of their job. I’m not sure if I totally agree with him, but it would be interesting to find out how many people around the world have been pushed to take action after watching an inspiring documentary.


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