Civil Society Groups and Volunteer Film Projects

Film: Breaking the Silence

Volunteering and Film

In this blog I’ve tried to move beyond the tired discourses of PR and Marketing and Management Science, to explore what really happens inside a charity, group or social enterprise when volunteers have a leading, structured and valued role in a film project. I argue below that a film project unlocks creative potential, and that it is an excellent tool for evaluation and improvement.

What happened to the outputs?

It is tempting to see a film project as something driven by the need to promote your work or your organization; to raise funds, or to increase public awareness. These are solid and worthy objectives. They are also measurable in terms of immediate impact. 

If you are successful in your film product then improvements in these areas are likely to result. But many films often just sit on a shelf after the debut screening; there is a sense of deflation and perhaps unfulfilled expectations of being a big hit on YouTube, or a life of red carpets and celebrity. Perhaps your film did not unlock the hoped for a stream of funding, sponsorship and donations. Many expensive public service films also fall into the category of the Great Unwatched. Dull news derived from dull brochures makes for dull films. Film is never a solution in itself; nor is it just a translation of existing media.

Why Participation beats commercial promotional priorities

A key point is that there’s a big difference between making a film as a collective, or working with a social media facilitator, and having a film made for you and about you – an outsider looking in. Most film production companies have very limited experience of the participatory approaches which are becoming more common in civil society. Commercial promotional film makers will not want your volunteers playing with the equipment. They might do some damage, or tell the truth as it is, or slow down the efficiency of a ‘proven’ business model. Effective participation takes time and confidence building but its good effects are cumulative and part of a distinctive fine-tuning of your message and impact. We are not inventing civil society; we just need to be better at doing it!

What are the benefits of working together with ‘film’ technology ?

I’d suggest that when we examine the film production process we are sometimes so focussed on one category of outputs and outcomes that we miss the added value secured by a communal approach to a set of issues. The creative doing, trying, and risking, can be a richly rewarding collective exercise on its own terms. We also tend to undervalue the sustaining improvements in critical and creative communication that may have rewards across a medium and longer term period for a group or an organization. Film can allow us to overcome barriers and blockages; it helps us to be more reflective and responsive to repressed issues and to emergent agendas. Collaborative participatory film production employs the skills needed by members  of a diverse and constantly changing society.

Volunteers will be able to move from less to more technical roles if you employ a negotiated and a flexible approach to production. In fact there are so many roles that you could incorporate in your production that it makes sense for people to have multiple and shifting tasks rather than fixed job descriptions.

Are you allowing enough time to engage in strategic thinking ?

Volunteers can also be paired in similar work such as directing, sound, presenting or scripting. We are looking for dialogue not singled minded egotism and vanity. Having multiple and parallel roles is not commercially the most efficient approach as time will be spent in discussion and negotiation. Perhaps you will find your film, like your group, pulling in opposite directions. This situation provides an excellent opportunity to debate strategic issues such as where we have come from and where we are trying to get to; what are our priorities; who is our target market?

Volunteers know best

A confident volunteer team will cut quickly to the most relevant issues; they will inject a freshness and vigour into a film project; they will trash the jargon and officialese and pomposity that besets institutions. Crisp, critical, clear, confident creative – these are the qualities that engaged volunteers deliver to project work. And remembers that there are dozens of roles in film production: technical and non-technical; in front of, or behind, the camera. From costumes to researchers, to sound worlds, to discussion and dance...

Moving beyond talking heads …

The simplest film consists of a recording of someone expressing their views, head and shoulders, in front of the camera. Recording opinions and outlooks could be the beginning of an evaluation of staff, service-users, volunteers, funders, trustees, etc. But it doesn’t take much imagination to take your project further. Think about place and location too.
Where is the film set?
What’s inside the frame / view-finder?
Is there any self or group-censorship going on?
Are there any ethical issues? Are we taking enough risk?
Is there a fear of participation? What’s the underlying cause? How can it be addressed?
Is our film essentially an internal or external evaluation?
A celebration or a satire?
Has the film become a story that holds your attention?
Is there a creative angle?
Are there solutions to problems presented?

Perhaps most significant is the effort to find a quirky, distinctive or even a humorous angle. Volunteers should be proud of their film production and product, and not all community films have to be a dreary mini-tragedy. (Nor, for that matter, a 2 hour epic!)

So many questions?

I’m much more interested in working out typical questions rather than trying to fix the answers. But I do believe that the positive engagement of volunteers, fully supported by their community group, are part of the solution. Given a chance, volunteer-led creative participation is a powerful tool for change.


  1. See also

  2. "Popular Video has arrived on Main Street. The camcorder is as popular as its accessibility, price and ease of use. As video becomes a truly popular tool, there is an authentic opportunity for a popular conmunications medium." DeeDee Halleck

  3. Very good post. Cuts to the point in practical language.


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