Empowering filmmakers for social impact

19 Feb 2024

Empowering filmmakers for social impact featured image

Film is a singularly powerful medium for influencing social change but crafting narratives and collating images to impact the attitudes and actions of viewers remains an ongoing challenge for the creators. So, too, the marketing and promotion of the finished works. 

As Churchill Fellow Alex Kelly says, ‘no film is a silver bullet’ but documentaries and features can definitely help spark social change if they tell a good story, have well defined audiences, are timely and have clear goals and calls to action. 

‘Documentary films can be a brilliant tool in encouraging and driving real lasting change.  

Stories and cultural products are amongst the most powerful drivers of social change and justice,’ she adds.  

‘It is a very exciting time in the evolution of the social change film industry as the intersection between filmmaking and activism grows.’ 

Alex, an artist, filmmaker and activist, is now based on Dja Dja Wurrung Country (the Bendigo, Victoria district) after living for many years in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) where she worked across film, theatre and developing communications strategies with social purpose.  

As a director and producer, she worked on award-winning documentaries such as Queen of the Desert, Island of the Hungry Ghosts, and In My Blood it Runs, all of them successful and carrying powerful messages. Alex also worked as creative producer on BighART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji, a multilayered theatre, film, and language revitalisation project, and co-founded the Something Somewhere documentary film, arts and culture festival.  

In 2012, Alex was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research documentaries and their social impact in the UK, Canada and the USA. Later she would receive support from a Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship and a Bertha Challenge Fellowship.  

‘Through this Fellowship I wanted to explore social change outreach and engagement in the specific field of documentary filmmaking,’ she explains.  

‘I wanted to see the strategies, tools and methods that were being used elsewhere to maximise the social impact of films that had at their core the desire to make change. I wanted to see what lessons and insights I could bring back to Australia to inform practice here, in documentary filmmaking in particular, and in arts and culture practice more broadly.’ 

From 2004-2012 Alex was a key figure in Big hART, a multidisciplinary and intercultural company specialising in making art with communities for high profile arts forums and arts festivals. The company was born out of what she refers to as ‘the economic rubble of Burnie – a mill town in its death-throws in 1992, on the Northwest Coast of Tasmania’.  

Big hART went on to expand nationally to work in 45 communities and was company in residence at the Canberra Theatre Centre, enabling it to influence federal MPs and decision makers in Australia’s national capital and explore residency links in London.  

Alex is also active in campaigns for climate justice, including as the Global Impact & Distribution Producer on Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything project that profiled communities on the front lines of the climate crisis.  

In 2022, Alex was a recipient of a Churchill Trust Fellow Impact Funding Grant, an initiative to enhance the outcomes of Churchill Fellows’ research and subsequent professional achievements. Alex’s Impact Funding focus was to consolidate and create Impact Production tools to make them more accessible to other filmmakers and artists. 

In consultation with communities, Impact Producers devise and execute a strategic campaign, including distribution, communications, outreach, engagement, and marketing, to maximise the audience reach and consequent impact of a film. 

In recent years Alex has been working across a range of large scale and award-winning projects, including being a founding member of the Unquiet Collective of storytellers and impact producers who are committed to making transformative change.  

The group presents at film festivals, universities, and other workplaces in Australia and internationally. Members have worked on a wide range of campaigns, many with a First Nations focus, and delivered leading documentaries and films, including The First Inventors (NITV and TEN), Araatika! Rise Up (SBS), Gayby Baby (iTunes & DocPlay), The Dreamlife of Georgie Stone (Netflix) and the acclaimed feature, Good Luck to you Leo Grande (Lionsgate). 

Alex’s Impact Funding included building a new section about impact producing on the Unquiet Collective website. 

‘My aim is to consolidate the tools I have in impact producing to make them more easily accessible to other filmmakers and artists. These include an impact generator, a guide to impact producing, a partnership MOU and a media strategy template.  

‘I’ve been spending time getting them into sharper shape, getting advice from other Impact Producers and then working with a designer to ensure they are engaging and well laid out.’  

Alex Kelly has received awards and taught extensively about impact producing, including presentations in CPH DOX, Copenhagen, the Sundance Film Festival, USA, and the Scottish Documentary Institute, and in Australia at Melbourne and Monash Universities, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Sydney Film Festival, Adelaide Festival and Antenna Film Festival. 

She says, ‘The Churchill Fellowship was a total watershed experience in my life. Having the opportunity to meet and connect with impact producers around the world was incredible.  

‘It accelerated my learning, deepened my practice, and has generated long standing connections and networks around the world which whom I regularly communicate and collaborate. It is impossible to overstate the power of the fellowship.’

She adds that, ‘The Impact Funding provided me with the time and resources to consolidate a range of practical tools for fellow filmmakers and impact producers.  

‘I am asked on a regular basis for advice on how to screen a film in Parliament, or how to work with partners on an impact campaign, or how to get a film into festivals. Now I have a 15-part tool kit ready to share with filmmakers and I know this is going to make it easier for people to get their films out there and make an impact.’ 

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