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The Persuasive Power of Documentary Films

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June 27, 2011

Charley Korns, Contributing Writer

A few years ago I started a master's program through the Institute for Humane Education in partnership with Cambridge College. This summer I'll earn my M.Ed. with an emphasis in humane education. My Individual Learning Project (ILP), comparable to a thesis, focused on the persuasive power of documentary films relevant to humane education. Structured as a guide for novice documentary filmmakers, my ILP examined filmmaking as a catalyst for change--personal and societal.

Movies of all kinds grew in popularity from 1980, when they earned less than $3 billion at the U.S. box office, to 2010, when they earned more than $10 billion. It is the dramatic movies that comprise most of the movie revenues. Audiences mainly are drawn to films based on their interest in particular actors, directors, and one or more of these genres: action, suspense, romance, comedy, adventure, horror, science fiction, or Western. But documentaries will always have their place and are well worth pursuing, albeit without car chases, exploding helicopters, or the latest special effects. The highest grossing documentary at the box office is Fahrenheit 9/11 (nearly $223 million worldwide), while the highest grossing dramatic film is Avatar (nearly $2.8 billion).

I have asked friends how documentary films have influenced them, and most of the time they name a few films that motivated them to take action to make a positive difference, such as signing up for a class or ending their fast food patronage. However, with the exception of a few scientific studies that examined viewers' perspectives on issues based on their viewing a documentary film, it is largely anecdotal experiences that point to the power of films to persuade––to influence behavior and affect change.

The Cove (2009), which won an Oscar for best feature-length documentary, exposed the annual dolphin captures and killings in Taiji, Japan. When asked what effect the film had on viewers, director Louie Psihoyos said people stopped going to dolphin shows as a result of seeing it. He noted that the mayor of Taiji said the movie shut down the demand for dolphin meat by $6 or $7 million a year.

Earthlings (2005), directed by Shaun Monson, has been viewed approximately 600,000 times on YouTube, as of June 14, 2011. Although that represents a little more than 1 percent of the views of the site's all-time most popular video (a Justin Bieber music video of his song called Baby), it is a significant number considering Earthlings' 95-minute length and disturbing content. The film chronicles the practices of some of the largest industries in the world in terms of their complicity in the exploitation, abuse, and killing of animals.

"If I could make everyone in the world see one film, I'd make them see Earthlings," said Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation. The film's narrator, Joaquin Phoenix, remarked, "Of all the films I have ever made, this is the one that gets people talking the most. For every one person who sees Earthlings, they will tell three."

Our Daily Bread reveals the chilling mechanization of industrial food production. To the rhythm of conveyor belts and immense machines, this "fly on the wall" documentary looks into the places where food is produced: monumental spaces, surreal landscapes, and bizarre sounds.

In late July, I will be presenting on the process and power of documentary films at several Multnomah County public libraries (July 22-24) and the Northwest VEG Vancouver potluck (July 21).

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