Beyond Resilience: Producing Documentaries with Impact

Firelight Media
6 min readDec 28, 2022

By Locsi Ferrá, Partner, Director, Social Impact Initiatives at Impact Media Partners

Editor’s Note: As part of Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience Masterclass series, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, we’re commissioning humanities scholars and experts in the field of documentary filmmaking to share reflections on themes related to events in the series. In this essay, Locsi Ferrá, Partner and Director of Social Impact Initiatives at Impact Media Partners, reflects on the theme of the last event in the series, Producing Documentaries with Impact. When and how should documentary filmmakers think about audience engagement and impact in the course of developing documentary film projects?

As an impact strategist, I read treatments and watch films with a critical eye on concepts and storylines that potentially align with social issues and thematic categories. In particular, who onscreen has a voice, and who doesn’t? Who has agency and who doesn’t? Who would benefit from this film and who needs to watch the film who otherwise wouldn’t, and why? Impact strategy is a skillset. It requires incubating and testing ideas, thinking outside the box, advance planning, multicultural approaches to community partners, buy-in from organizational and business partners, budgeting, and so much more. This is a lot for a filmmaker to do on their own, even if they have the skillset, so I fully recommend getting an impact producer.

I know, I know, launching an impact campaign is always dependent on money. If you don’t have full funding for an impact campaign, then consider working with an impact producer during different phases of your project as funds come in. I know there are only a few official avenues to apply for impact campaign funding, so this is when you need to get creative. Go beyond the institutional funders and reach out to businesses, local foundations, and corporate social responsibility departments at corporations that reside in your city. Leverage your own network to find contacts as well!

The content landscape is flooded with new stories, documentaries, and series, so it often feels necessary to have an impact campaign just to ensure that you find your audience. The documentary world has long understood how impact campaigns elevate films, but the entertainment industry as a whole still has far to go to understand how to do social impact successfully, responsibly, and inclusively. New ways of doing impact campaigns are evolving just as non-fiction storytelling is evolving and broad reach doesn’t necessarily mean impact. Each documentary film team must find their own way of doing impact. One size doesn’t fit all, so it’s important to find impact experts to work closely with you to determine, refine, and implement the strategies and tactics that are authentic to your project.

Who onscreen has a voice, and who doesn’t? Who has agency and who doesn’t? Who would benefit from this film and who needs to watch the film who otherwise wouldn’t, and why?

If you’re producing a film that has potential for impact, one common mistake I see is thinking that impact begins when your film is complete. Of course finishing the film is paramount, but thinking about impact in advance, even during the development stages of your film, can prove essential. Much like thinking about diversity and inclusion is essential for authentic storytelling projects, so is impact. That can begin with including something like a budget line item for an impact producer who can help cultivate ideas and outreach strategies and build relationships with organizations and other entities that align with your film concept even before you begin production.

In the production process, there can also be moments when film participants experience a crisis and need support and resources. Having an impact producer onboard before your film is complete can help the filmmaking team develop a care plan with resources and community organizations that can provide services and support during the production and even after the film’s completion and distribution. Perhaps some documentary filmmakers would deem this intervention as a breach of the process, but I’ve worked with filmmakers who feel an intervention like this is necessary. This is part of impact thinking as well.

I currently have the pleasure of working with filmmaker Kevin Shaw (an alum of Firelight Media’s Documentary Lab and a grantee of its Impact Campaign Fund) on his recent film Let the Little Light Shine, which premiered on POV on PBS earlier this month. I admire his film, his relationship with the film participants, and his passion for developing a project specifically for impact. For those who haven’t seen Let the Little Light Shine (stop what you’re doing and watch it now!), it’s about a top ranking African-American elementary school that is threatened to be replaced by a new high school favoring the community’s wealthier residents.

Let the Little Light Shine is layered with complex themes and opportunities for education and action on racial justice, education equity, gentrification, the displacement of Black communities, and much more. Due to its multiple themes, we had to focus on a clear strategy and a target audience that would benefit from watching the film. We determined that the film itself is basically a step-by-step blueprint for becoming an organizer for social justice — disguised as a compelling documentary. And the twist is that the film showcases a rare win for a Black community fighting displacement. Our target audience and goal became clear: We need to reach parents, teachers, and community members who care deeply about the issues affecting their community but don’t consider themselves activists and organizers or just don’t know how or where to start. The film is a source of inspiration and proof that when parents and communities of color band together to fight Goliath, they can be victorious. Each of the everyday people featured in the film became organizers out of necessity and an urge to stand their ground for justice.

The Organizing Toolkit from the impact campaign for ‘Let the Little Light Shine.’ Download here.

Through our impact campaign, we want to create adult learning spaces for leadership training and skill-building for first-time organizers and activists, especially from BIPOC communities that are inspired by the film. We developed an Organizing Toolkit but felt more is needed to support new agents of change. Organizers and activists, especially from disenfranchised communities, often do this work on their own time while using their own resources and supplies, which can be unsustainable even if the work is vitally important to them and their community. As part of the continued fundraising for the impact campaign, we incorporated a provision to provide micro-grants to newly trained organizers as a resource to kickstart their passion projects.

I recommend visiting the Global Impact Producers Alliance (GIPA) to find impact consultants that meet your needs. Me and my peers at Impact Media Partners are also available.

May 2023 be an incredible year of innovative documentaries and impact campaigns. Happy New Year!

With 15 year’s dedication to advancing equality and social good causes around the world, Locsi Ferrá is a prolific coalition builder and advocate to be reckoned with. As an expert creator of multi-platform initiatives, Locsi’s finesse and creativity in using entertainment as a tool for social change is powerful. She led ITVS’ Women and Girls Lead, a multi-year film initiative reaching 59 million viewers in the United States, which scaled into a global program mobilizing communities in 5 countries. A social impact entrepreneur to the core, she has a proven track record for both large-scale and community-based projects.

Locsi has worked passionately with NGOs and entertainment companies to shift thinking and behaviors for a better world with organizations like Amnesty International USA, UNPFA Nepal, La Casa de Las Madres, and Paz Y Desarollo in Vietnam. When serving as Director of Distribution, Campaigns and Strategic Partnerships at ITVS, she produced multiple high-level film education campaigns including the PBS and Independent Lens flagship series Half the Sky, A Path Appears, and Ted Talks on PBS. She also contributed as Head of Impact at Level Forward where she advised on mainstreaming inclusion and social impact into creative and business practices. After 2 years working as an independent impact consultant for projects such as the TakeCare Campaign, Coded Bias, and Youtube Originals film Paper Children, she now feels at home as a Partner and Director of Social Impact Initiatives (Film + TV) at Impact Media Partners.

To learn more about Firelight Media’s Beyond Resilience series, and to learn about future events, visit firelightmedia.tv/beyond-resilience.

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Firelight Media

Firelight Media is a nonprofit organization that supports, resources, and advocates on behalf of documentary filmmakers of color.