Peace Is Loud Is A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Grantee!
Peace is Loud is a recipient of a Pioneering Ideas: Exploring the Future to Build a Culture of Health grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation! The Pioneering Ideas for an Equitable Future grant supports projects, new technologies, scientific discoveries and cultural shifts that are redefining our future. Robert Wood Johnson supports ideas that could help us live our healthiest lives and how those ideas can influence the future.
Our project, “Equity, Safety & Representation: Centering the Health and Dignity of Documentary Film protagonists in the Quest for Social Change” seeks to advance health equity by developing a formalized care framework to provide a set of resources that tangibly prioritize health and well-being in documentary film work.
This work is supported through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). RWJF is the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted to improving the health and wellbeing of everyone in America. In partnership with others, RWJF works to develop a Culture of Health rooted in equity. Please visit their website rwjf.org for more information.
Learn from Stephanie Palumbo!
What’s Next Health reached out to Peace is Loud Director of Film Impact and Innovation, Stephanie Palumbo, to talk about our Protagonist Care project funded by RWJF.
Originally posted by WNH Editors on Medium.
This interview is part of our 5 Questions For…Series, where we learn about the ways RWJF’s Pioneering Ideas for an Equitable Future grantees are helping us get to a healthier tomorrow — today.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish with your project?
A: Documentaries can lead to transformative social change — starting with the people and communities in the film, and then broadening out to the audience who view it. The people who share their stories are the drivers, not the subject, of the film. They make the film possible, and we have a responsibility to protect their safety and ensure that their agency and dignity is respected.
With Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s support, we’re looking at how filmmakers can care for protagonists. We know that there are other filmmakers who are concerned with this, so we’ll begin with a survey of the documentary makers and protagonists to surface what work is being done, and to identify what the gaps are and where protagonists’ needs aren’t being met. Then, we’re planning to collaborate with film participants to create tools to help operationalize protagonist care, specifically aimed at documentary filmmakers and funders, but also for protagonists themselves.
There’s been so much harm done throughout the history of documentary film; it’s been a really extractive process. A recent example is Margie Ratliff, who was one of the protagonists in the documentary, The Staircase. The ripple effects of being part of the documentary were a traumatizing experience, in part because she didn’t consent to the film’s widespread distribution on Netflix or adaptation into an HBO mini-series. We also have situations where filmmakers come into a community that maybe they’re not a part of, and what they capture on camera puts individuals or the community in danger. For example, people who are undocumented can lose their jobs, be arrested, and even risk being deported if filmmakers disclose their citizenship status in a film without their consent.
We’re actually collaborating with Ratliff on a resource to help [protagonists], so that if somebody is approached by a filmmaker who says, “I want to make a documentary film about you, will you share your story?” they have resources to help them understand what they can ask for.
Fire Through Dry Grass Co-Directors Alexis Neophytides and Andres “Jay” Molina
Photo credit: Alex Murawski
Q: Looking ahead five, ten, fifteen years, how do you see this work helping individuals and communities create healthier, more equitable futures?
A: Ultimately, we hope our work leads to a change whereby the documentary industry is making sure that protagonists have the kind of mental, physical, and material resources they need, and that filmmakers are taking steps to ensure they don’t unintentionally create opportunities for harm to come to protagonists and their communities. Also, because documentaries often feature protagonists who are fighting for social justice and trying to build a better world, if their basic needs are met — if they don’t have to worry about having a roof over their heads or food on the table — they’re going to be in a much better position to keep organizing and keep fighting and keep building.
And while it starts first and foremost with caring for the people who are in the films, documentaries reach mass audiences and it matters how the protagonists and storytellers create personal agency to influence change or elevate issues that matter. For example, when protagonists don’t have any agency or decision-making, then often we see these really racist or harmful depictions in film. But if we see more films that really represent the full humanity, dignity, and agency of the people on screen who are telling their stories, we will have more just, equitable representation. And if we see films where people who have been oppressed step into their power and create change, that could spark a shift away from harmful narratives about victimhood, where people are blamed and shamed for their life circumstances.
Q: What signals of the future or emerging trends were you noticing that led you to want to do this project?
A: There has been a real kind of reckoning over the past several years around ethics and accountability in documentary filmmaking. There have been BIPOC filmmakers and queer filmmakers who have been practicing this kind of accountable community care for many years, but it hasn’t translated over into the commercial side of documentary films. We’ve also been doing more of this in our own work at Peace is Loud — for example finding pro bono lawyers for protagonists who, by virtue of being in a documentary, are put at legal risk. More and more filmmakers are coming to us and saying, “Well, how do you do that? How does it work?”
Seeing this kind of interest in the field, acknowledging the practitioners of protagonist care-centered work, knowing our track record of having done it successfully over the past decade, we want to bring solutions to a larger number of filmmakers to seed change across the industry.
The people who share their stories are the drivers, not the subject, of the film. They make the film possible, and we have a responsibility to protect their safety and ensure that their agency and dignity is respected.
Q: What is one thing people should read, watch, or listen to that will help them understand more about this idea?
The Documentary Accountability Working Group’s Framework for Values, Ethics, and Accountability in Nonfiction Filmmaking is just an absolutely brilliant resource for filmmakers, funders, and even audiences to better understand the kinds of practices that could and should go into documentary filmmaking. It has really been the guiding light in moving accountability forward in the field. Our project will build upon this framework by really zeroing in on the protagonist care element and operationalizing it.
And of course there are many incredible documentaries where protagonists have decision making power in the storytelling and how it’s being brought into the world. Crip Camp is one that stands out in particular — it’s about a summer camp that inspires a group of teens with disabilities to become organizers. And then there’s the documentary Fire Through Dry Grass, which Peace is Loud is consulting on.
One of the co-directors is also the protagonist — he lives in a nursing home on New York’s Roosevelt Island and he started filming what happened there when COVID-19 hit. He shared the footage with his co-director, a filmmaker outside of the nursing home, who also filmed more, and they edited it all together. They’re telling a story neither of them could have told on their own, because one of them is inside the community and one is outside of the community, and they are able to tell the story in a way that is just so much stronger as a result of the collaboration.
Fire Through Dry Grass Co-Producer Peter Yearwood looking out the window at Coler Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center
Photo credit: Fire Through Dry Grass
Q: Is there anything we didn’t ask you?
A: When it comes to operationalizing ethics there is no one-size-fits-all. Take compensation for example: There are situations where a protagonist may lose their source protection if they are paid, and then there are also protagonists who are concerned that it’ll undermine their credibility if they are paid. At the same time, there’s real labor involved in telling your story. So, we’re looking at how we can guide filmmakers in assessing the situation and determining how to mitigate risk. For financial compensation, that might mean exploring other options if payment poses a legal challenge: Can you buy their groceries? Can you set up a scholarship fund? Are there community methods of compensation?
At the end of the day, we want to help filmmakers identify how to figure out the course of action with their protagonists — hearing from them what their needs are, what they want in that moment, and determining together how to provide equity, safety, and representation.
The last thing I want to say is that people who watch documentary films can make a difference too. Documentaries are viewed by millions, and if those audiences began looking into how films are made — starting with paying attention to whose names you see right in the credits and whether any of the protagonists from the film are listed there as directors or producers — and then really championing and supporting the films that are embracing these more ethical and just practices, that could really help bring about a sea of change.