Social Advocacy and Politics: Turning Films into Action


I spent this past weekend at the opening of the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival. Among the many films screening there (the festival continues through this coming Friday, so it is not too late to catch some), are documentaries advocating for some official policy action. One of these films is a short documentary by Jet Wintzer about all of the statues, elementary schools and parks named after Albert Pike. Wintzer makes a strong case in the film, National Scars: The Albert Pike Monuments, that we should not be using Pike’s name on these nor should we use public funds to maintain them. The film is good, but there is more that can be done to advance the director’s cause.

After the screening, I spent some time with the director talking about his goals for the film. The film exposes Albert Pike as a leading voice in the post-Civil War era for continued repression of the recently freed slaves. Using Pike’s own words from editorials he penned while serving as Editor-in-Chief of the Memphis Daily Appeal newspaper, Wintzer documents Pike extremist views on denying the right to vote, and even denying the right to freedom, for African-American former slaves. Given the evidence of Pike’s “evil” views, as Wintzer adamantly emphasizes, it makes no sense that his statue is maintained by taxpayer dollars at Judiciary Square in Washington, DC or that African-American children have to attend an elementary school named for him.

Though the film makes a powerful case, when Jet and I talked about what more could be done, Jet said he had made the film, put it out there and now other people can take up the cause.Albert Pike

While I very much appreciate the work Wintzer did to collect the original source research, and script, shoot and edit the film, I can’t help think that there is more he, and other directors making their own cause focused films, can do. After all, we live in the social media age, where anyone, with a modest amount of effort can promote their causes (and their films).

Much as reporters are now expected to both produce their stories and promote them, directors (especially those with a cause) should be expected to help promote their films and the causes they advance. With reporters, especially given the recent breakdown of the news media business model, their ability to bring readers to their stories, and to their publications, makes them more valuable to publishers that are looking to cut costs everywhere. Unlike reporters, whose publications used to be thriving businesses, documentarians have always struggled to find large audiences for their art (especially directors of short, independent documentaries).

But with social media at their disposal, independent documentarians can promote their films and their causes to highly targeted audiences. These audiences would be very interested to know of these works AND interested in elevating the public profile of documentaries that make the case for action on causes they hold dear. The trick is to do a little research, identify the right hashtags; the right Facebook groups and organizations to tag; and the right influencers to reach out to in order to generate some buzz.

For independent documentarians, especially, the process of using social media to promote their cause is made easier because they have a great piece of content, their film, to share. Given that “content is king,” independent directors have the opportunity to rule their cause, if they just take the initiative to do so. Even if they do not already have a social media presence, they can jumpstart one off their film by making sure they target the right audiences and influencers. 

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