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How can charities use film for social change?

29 March 2022

How do you create real and lasting change in today’s world? This is as much a practical challenge as it is a moral one. With the escalating cost of fixing problems, and with so many viewing charities as ‘bottomless pits’, how else can charities seek to address issues at the root, and effect greater transformation within society?

Film is a medium with a proven track record of bringing issues to the forefront with big ripple effects. The ability to both educate and entertain holds serious potential to grab the attention of mainstream audiences, and consequently challenge perceptions, raise consciousness and compel people to talk and act. Charities should therefore be thinking creatively about how to use film as a springboard for the changes they want to see.

Take climate change for example. This is an unprecedented issue facing every individual and organisation, and film is playing an important role in the fight against it, just look at how Don’t Look Up smashed Netflix records, with 152 million hours streamed in a single week. To create social change we need to motivate wider society, and in the case of the climate crisis this means we need to strengthen the environmental foothold in mainstream culture. Here we look at three films dealing with this overwhelmingly big issue and inspiring audiences to be a part of the solution, and decipher what charities can learn from them.

Don’t Look Up

Whether you loved it or hated it, two things are likely – you watched it and you talked about it. This controversial, satirical film – now Netflix’s second most-watched film ever – has succeeded in sparking conversation and the ironic backlash from press and social media only plays on the film’s sense of inevitability. By mirroring climate change as a visible, tangible threat to all human-kind, it has created a personal and imminent sense of danger, challenging our own attitudes and prompting a desire to react with urgency.

Charity takeaway: With a budget of $75m, creating a blockbuster of this scale is not something any charity can take on alone. But it does reflect a growing confidence in the impact of film, and how using narrative, satire, and humour to underline serious issues can pack a punch. The film has partnered with charity Count Us In to create its own climate platform, which links the main takeaways from the film to the climate crisis and prompts viewers to take action. Count Us In is a growing community of more than a quarter of a million people who have so far collectively taken steps to save an estimated total of 114,909,836 kg of C02. This film-charity partnership is one great example of how to convert motivated audiences into action.

Our Planet

Nature and David Attenborough – it is hard to think of one without the other. He has inspired multiple generations with his infectious awe of the natural world. He is a fantastic storyteller, using narrative to help us connect, empathise, and to grow our understanding, taking us from micro to macro level and inspiring us to care and appreciate the world around us.

The Our Planet series was created by Netflix in collaboration with WWF, and used a similar format to shows like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. The big difference was that it carried an explicit environmental message, which was central to its marketing and promotion. WWF played a key editorial role, influencing the narrative and acting as a scientific advisor. It received prominent branding within the series and was responsible for driving the wider initiative.

Charity takeaway: The Our Planet Report shows that the series educated, informed and inspired tens of millions of people around the world. It proved content with hard-hitting environmental messages could be commercially successful and it helped mainstream the climate conversation. The evidence shows a profound influence on worldwide awareness, beliefs and behaviour. For example, those exposed to the series showed a significantly higher understanding of the impact of our eating habits, the urgency for action and the need for environmental accountability amongst businesses and governments, than those who hadn’t watched the series. This should encourage more charities to confidently invest their time and money with filmmakers, and to be brave with their voice.

Into Dust

Into Dust is predominantly a script-led reenactment which tells the story of a real-life water crisis in Karachi, Pakistan. On one hand, Into Dust is a human story about a Pakistani activist, and the dedication of two sisters. On the other hand, it’s a red light to every viewer, warning us of the growing impact of climate change on corruption and poverty worldwide. It gives us a glimpse of what many more cities could face in the years to come.

This film focuses on one compelling story to demonstrate one huge, climate-related issue. Through cinematography, narrative and characters, we are immersed and moved. Through this film, we understand the issue and the human consequence, and perhaps most importantly we empathise – an emotion which brings us closer to taking action.

Charity takeaway: The film is now available for free on WaterBear; the first interactive streaming platform dedicated to the future of the planet. The network was launched in December 2020 by Ellen Windemuth, the executive producer of My Octopus Teacher. In her words; “It’s a community that is action-oriented, rather than just leaning back and watching content.” The platform streams films made by its NGO partners, and whilst you watch, you have the option to connect with further resources to learn more and support projects. The WaterBear ethos is confirmation that charities need to get behind / in front of the camera, and this network is an incredible opportunity for charities to reach a growing, socially conscious audience.

Practical Steps

From creating your own content for platforms, to supporting wider film campaigns with resources, the possibilities of film for charities are big and growing. There is no one linear path – it depends on your charity’s size, budget, connections and structure, however, for a film to have maximum social impact it should:

  • Reach a large audience
  • Relate on a personal level
  • Have a clear message
  • Start conversations
  • Link to action

Climate change and the environment should be considered within every charity’s strategy, as it will affect just about everything, from social injustice to health and animal welfare. But regardless, the power of film for social change is huge, and your stories – no matter how ‘small’ – can play their part in building a more socially aware and active society. If impact is your charity’s objective, then now is the time to get involved.


For filmmaking advice, check out our guide: FilmKit for charities

Want to know how we can all play a part in communicating the environmental crisis? Join us for our next conference: Communicating to create change: tackling the environmental crisis

Banner Image: Jacob Capener on Unsplash

Sophie Cooke

content producer, 2S Films

Sophie is the content producer for 2S Films, the video experts for the nonprofit sector, dedicated to helping charities create impactful films and multi-media campaigns in the digital age.