How to make documentaries accessible? Go global

As a jury-member for this year’s One World Media Awards, which promotes media that contributes to understanding of international development, BBC Storyville editor Nick Frazer talks about how the documentary collection Why Poverty? succeeded in taking a ‘forbidding subject’ to audiences in 80 countries.

Documentaries are among the most prized things of our times, but they remain under-appreciated, certainly unwatched.

How can broadcasters make better use of the docs they commission? How can we all – film-makers, commissioning editors, patrons, buffs, activists – make sure that more of the best docs get to be seen every year?

One answer is – be global. Take talents from anywhere and get their work seen wherever you can. This is the simple thinking behind Why Poverty?

For the past four years, I’ve worked with colleagues from broadcasters throughout the world, an NGO based in Cape Town and a website run from London. Poverty is a forbidding subject, hedged about with good intentions.

From the beginning we wanted to make films that people would watch. We also didn’t want to be dogmatic.

You can find any number of people who think that aid is useless. But this turns out to be a simplification. Some aid is useless, but the picture is far from bleak.

Many millions have found their way out of poverty. How did they do it? What helps them, and what hinders them?

Our eight films come from Jordan, China, the US, Mali, Cambodia and Sierra Leone. There’s a question attached to each film – our questions are hard to answer.

We give you an animated film recounting the history of a poor man – yes, through recorded history. And another film tells you how your life chances are determined, crucially, by where you are born.

Our 30 shorts tell a somewhat different story. No, the lives of poor people aren’t uneventful. Those whom we call ‘the poor’ aren’t unworthy of attention. You just have to listen to what they say.

And most of all, you have to cease thinking of them as objects or patronage, or aid fodder. No magic bullet exists capable of eliminating poverty, and we shouldn’t be looking for one.

Instead, as the writer Fareed Zakaria, puts it, we should somehow come to see poor people as humans, like us in most important respects, but not fated to have lives like ours.

Our films have been shown in 80 countries. You can’t really calculate the effect of a series like this, and I feel that one shouldn’t try to do this.

Some broadcasters handled the shows better than others, to be sure.

I wish we’d spent more marketing the films. But they can be found on our website whypoverty.net.

They will be used educationally, and enjoy a long life. In ways that we cannot anticipate they will have reached people, altering the way they see the world.

And I hope they’ll be seen as a prototype. You can reach many people through documentaries. It takes a lot of work, but the outcome isn’t unrewarding.

Broadcasters should do more things like Why Poverty? They should collaborate more. They should be more ambitious.

We are judged as broadcasters by our ability to make sense of the world. Working on Why Poverty? I learnt a lot about this. I sense that our audiences, whoever and wherever they are, will do the same.

The One World Media Awards take place on Tuesday 7 May 2013, at Kings Place, 90 York Way, London.

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