Do Activist Documentaries Really Make a Difference? Hot Docs Weighs in with This Report

Do documentaries that focus on pressing issues of our time have any quantifiable impact on those issues? On one side of the debate, you have those who think the sole purpose of documentary should be to affect change. On the other, there are those who think advocacy docs are more propaganda than art. And then there's everyone in between. Hot Docs, one of the largest documentary film festivals in the world, just released their 2014 Report on the issue titled Documentary Impact: Social Change Through Storytelling entailing their findings. What do you think?

Hot Docs' 2014 Impact Report (which you can read in its entirety here) starts with a quote from documentary icon of Grey Gardens and Salesman fame, Albert Maysles:

I think it’s inevitable that people will come to find the documentary a more compelling and more important kind of film than fiction. Just as in literature, as the taste has moved from fiction to nonfiction, I think it’s going to happen in film as well.

Well, that's already enough to start a heated debate! The report features 28 pages on the impact of documentary in 2014 and profiles five successful documentaries: Bully, Tales From the Organ Trade, Herman's House, The Invisible War, and How to Survive a Plague. The report terms the new sector of the film industry dedicated to creating social impact films as the "impact space" and defines levels of impact in this infographic:

Each case study is organized by the film's goals, strategies, and outcomes. As you can see with the report's breakdown of The Invisible War, Kirby Dick's film about the epidemic of rape in the military, there is certainly good evidence for this documentary to have been a successful catalyst for change:

Goals of The Invisible War

  • Raise awareness about the epidemic of rape in the US military in the public and in the media.
  • Change policy: Take rape cases outside the Chain of Command in the military.
  • Support survivors of military sexual assault.


  • The Pentagon, high-level military officials and top staff in the Obama administration have seen the film.
  • The film is now used as a training tool for military personnel.
  • nearly one million members of the US armed services have seen the film.
  • Mass media coverage: The filmmakers have appeared on dozens of media outlets, including a special hour with Katie Couric.
  • Mainstream television series, including House of Cards and Law & Order: SVU, have adopted story lines influenced by the film, as has the comic strip Doonesbury.
  • Policy/legal: MOre than 20 pieces of legislation have been introduced in US Congress, with major legislation still pending.

Of course, films like The Invisible War, that actually result in laws being changed, aren't average results -- it's definitely a best-case-scenario. There are no case studies in the report of unsuccessful documentaries that failed to have an impact on their targeted issue, which is too bad because it would be great to read about why such docs failed.

Do you think that Al Maysles is right about documentary beginning to outgrow fiction?  If that were true, what do we think about the growing role of social impact documentaries in the "impact space"? And finally, are you a believer or a skeptic when it comes to social change documentaries?

Link: Documentary Impact: Social Change Through Documentary -- Hot Docs 2014 Report 

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Your Comment


August 15, 2014 at 7:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


If you haven't seen How to Survive a Plague, I can't recommend it enough. But it's not a date movie. It's absolutely devastating.

August 15, 2014 at 8:17PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Duke Theodore

I think there is a lot... a lot! to say here.

I think the Maysles: quote has little to do with the social issues comments made in your posting. Maysles is not so interested in social change documentaries as he is interested in documentary as an important form of filmmaking...he is very interested in poetics.

The social issue thing is a whole other ball game and I think films do work powerfully in this venue ....but this is not art... it is journalism at that point...and bias journalism at that.

not that there isn't cross over between journalism and art, there is. but often these films are made in a certain form factor (talking head interviews!! and b-roll and archival footage) and this takes away from the art.

On the other hand going along with what Maysle's is saying there is some very great new documentary work being made that is more interested in lets say a "poetic truth" or an "emotional truth" that has been really really great and I feel this is what has the potential not to overtake narrative fiction filmmaking but to intermix and become an important force. In the same way in literature there is often an intermix of this.... Many writers write in almost autobiographical ways and mix in fiction....looking at literature there is so much room for different types of writing and style of novels....I feel filmmaking is a bit limited in this sense and is now being broken open

Today Looking at what filmmakers like the ross bro's are doing ...or Andrew Droz's Rich Hill coming soon....or leviathan from the Harvard ethnography people....or take a look at AG Rojas!

there is so much room for documentary to do be more then a social issues platform, it can certainly be art!

rant done.

August 15, 2014 at 8:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I am shocked - shocked I tell ya - that "Obama's America" was mentioned among these documentaries. Shocked!

August 15, 2014 at 10:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Naturally, the absence of the edit feature can bite a little. (not mentioned, indeed)

August 15, 2014 at 10:58PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM



August 16, 2014 at 7:45AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


As Bobw111 wrote at 9:26PM, the majority of the documentaries and the documentarians lean left of Stalin. Considering that the major media outlets share in this general philosophy and outlook, this makes both the ideological and financial sense because of general ease of receiving free publicity, which can enrich many a noble communist like Michael Moore and Al Gore regardless of the actual veracity of their claims.
Below are the inaccuracies and outright deceits in "Farenheit 9/11". I had a very minor contribution to 23/24.

And this is the film that received a standing ovation at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

August 16, 2014 at 6:51PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


french journalism (and the like) is based on revolutionary figures of the "lumière" philosophers. They used to write pamphlet to voice their opinions. They tried to be objective but their intent was not to be impartial... That probably what we call a journalism of opinion. Anglo-saxon journalism pride itself in the "sourcing", to legitimate the accuracy of what is being reported by the veracity of the source... Let's that some kind of journalism don't care so much about the source... Generally speaking bad source means bad journalism. But are we stupid enough to think that a journalist is impartial, that the editorial choices are not the result of the political agenda of the board our even the country or its financial interests?
From the old european continent the way we see : Mickael Moore is not a journalist, the interest of his documentary's technique resides in his ability of using false naivety to get the best or the worst of his interviewees... The farce and the comical being quiet obvious would not expect a good and 100% accuracy of sourcing... The guy turns everything into derision and mockery and he is quiet honest that he his fighting a reckless oligarchy why wouldn't he fictionalize caricature his opponent? Because it is journalism? Well we do not think documentaries are journalism... And we do not think stand up comedians making political satire are political chronicler even if they sound very much like they are...

August 17, 2014 at 4:55PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I'm not a fan of documentaries because they use emotion and music to persuade you to believe their thesis regardless of facts, so it's hard to get a clear picture of the issue. I read things for information and I watch things to be entertained (and to feel - but not in a depressing documentary way - in an uplifting Walter Mitty kind of way)... With fiction, you can still inform, but you allow people to make their own decisions without shoving it in their faces.

August 16, 2014 at 12:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Mark C

An example: a fictional anti-war film would be much more powerful and far reaching than an anti-war documentary. For one thing, you could get pro-war people to watch a fictional anti-war film far easier than an anti-war documentary. But mainly, you can show the transformation of the characters in the moment and not in the aftermath...

That's the main difference, now that I point it out to myself, Documentary's are most often based on past events and recalling them, fictional films are based in the present, no matter when they're set. Fiction tells stories, Documentary's tell stories of stories.

So: Documentary's = Past; Fiction = Present

August 16, 2014 at 12:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Mark C

"Stories of stories?????" Wow, you don't know what you're talking about. Restrepo was more powerful and far reaching than any film about the war in Afghanistan. And what about Hearts and Minds? Hell and Back Again? I could go on and on. But I guess you never saw any of those. Good luck with your ignorance.

August 16, 2014 at 4:45PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Duke Theodore

I doubt many people would call my comments ignorant, nor me for making them. I'm just biased towards fictional works of art, as all documentaries are biased towards the point they're trying to get across... I just find documentaries to be a complete waste of time (and utterly boring), when I could get all the same information by reading a short article in five minutes without bias... Sorry my views offend you :(

August 16, 2014 at 11:29PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

Mark C

Bias is interesting, we all are...
either because we reach a collectively a consensus that we are willing to live and die for... or because of financial means. Fiction is also an opinion even if it tries not to have none (which is on in itself). Documentaries are good if you know what they stand for (not the ultimate truth). It's like being exposed to the opinion of someone in a bar...
The thing that we lack is an education of what are the mass media and a proper education on how to read a picture to start with...

August 17, 2014 at 5:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


The interesting thing about "documentary" filmmakers (particularly new ones) is how they over-represent the "under-represented."

Get 50 of together in a room and you will find 48 of them all trying to "change the world" by doing a documentary on the same 5 or 6 topics: (1) racial issues, (2) Women's issues, (3) economic inequality, (4) guns as the cause of violence, (5) Fracking, (6) evil United States "activity" somewhere in the world. (It's as bad as the tons of college students out to become social workers.)

The exact 5 or 6 topics may change year to year, but you get my drift.

The consequence is there are 46 works that rehash exhausted topics, 1 whacked out "something" that never comes close to a topic, and 1 interesting work that adds value for the world.

Too bad "critical thinking" and "exploring alternative mindsets" isn't required training for documentary film makers.

August 16, 2014 at 6:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


Watch the "The crash reel" please...

August 19, 2014 at 8:35AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


my next show on, tonight at 8pm on channel 2, is "earth bird presents" on it is the event called POW(poets opposing war) it was first cablecasted just before desert storm attacked Irac. it was the only media opposing the war, due to the war footing forced on the nation. did it matter that we could not stop the war, yes,
but the effort brought more people out. that counts, doing nothing doesn't

August 21, 2014 at 2:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM

emilio murillo

I wish, but, I hardly believe that documentary will come to surpass fiction films.

There are several reasons, the most important is called industry. If anyone compares the heavy weight of economic influence of industry against the low budget used to produce documentaries the difference jumps over to the view...there is no comparation point at all.

On the other hand, there is right now a global economic-sociopolitical context that promotes stupidity as a way of life, the governments of the powerful countries don´t wants the people to think anymore, and our political system in the poor countries plays their game too (by the way I´m from a central american will know, corruption, drug, gangs, etc., all that is true).

Everyday the educational systems are training our children more like dogs and educating them less like humans. Our students (at least in the badly named "third world"), are moved against their will, towards a non thinking system, where stupidity is king and mediocrity is queen.

Documentaries that try to promote a change are the whole against this system, so is almost imposible that this kind of film will get enough support to overcome the fiction industry that, sale the recipes to a "not to think way of life". Entertainment is all about that, not to think, laugh as an idiot (or cry, or whatever) and forget real world for 2 hours, and that is the sick sad truth about most film industry.

Being like this, social documentaries have a lot of work to come, trying to change that schema of stupidity and mediocrity, before they can really impact the media industry and cause an impact in social life and real world.

August 22, 2014 at 6:26AM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM


I like a good documentary but I think the market is getting oversaturated. I bet they are easier to get funded because there are so many political or corporate motives behind them so people will pay to get their message out.

August 28, 2014 at 9:52PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM