Chasing Ice–And Audience Action: How Top Docs Galvanize Causes Online

The makers of docs in contention for Oscar nominations talk about activating audiences after they leave the theater.

Documentaries historically excel at making viewers care about outrageous misfortune, stupidity, injustice, and prejudice. Building on previous campaigns sparked by films like The Cove, many top doc makers short-listed this year for Academy Award consideration are using the web to convert audience members from observers into participants in their cause.


Director Eugene Jarecki, for example, eviscerates the War on Drugs in his documentary The House I Live In. The film’s companion site played a role in the successful election-year campaigns to decriminalize pot in Washington and Colorado. “What used to happen when you left the theater is that all your passion would kind of vanish into the night air on your way to dinner or to your car,” Jarecki says. By directing viewers to the film’s Get Involved companion site, he notes, “People are just a mouse click away from the repository of whatever avenues of activism the film has generated.”

Working with consultants Bond Strategy and Influence, Jarecki and his team use a zip-code-driven search engine that enables the film’s fans to engage the issue in their own neighborhoods. “If you want to fight against the drug war, you can very quickly find your way to what the central issues are in your state or district, who’s doing what in terms of boots on the ground, who your representatives are and what their views are on this issue.”

James Balog

While many documentarians intend to rally viewers behind their causes before shooting a single frame of film, director Jeff Orlowski initially had more modest goals for Chasing Ice. The lauded global warming movie features tragically awesome footage of melting icebergs captured by star photographer James Balog. “We came into this not as activists but as people who wanted to tell a visual story that would convey the reality of what’s happening around the planet,” Orlowski explains. “We wanted Chasing Ice to be an adventure story about what James went through to make this project a reality.”


However, after Chasing Ice started bowling over audiences at movie theaters, Orlowski expanded the agenda. “Based on the response to the film,” he says, “there’s been a lot of demand put on us to give people a call to action so they can do something to make a difference.”

Chasing Ice‘s partners with environmental group Orlowski says “If people want to get involved from a political perspective, that’s who we point them to. Our website has a lot of other resources as well in terms of what people can do on an individual level.”

For filmmaker Kirby Dick, who trawled the web to find subjects willing to go on record about rape in the military for his expose The Invisible War, companion site serves as catalyst that brings together support for his ongoing campaign to crack down on sexual assaults in the armed forces.


“‘Not Invisible’ gives people a chance to articulate their own experiences,” Dick says. “There’s also a larger network of organizations that have been brought together around this issue like the American Association of University Women, whom we work very closely with. It’s all part of an ongoing campaign to let more people know about what’s going on.”

Here’s a look at how other documentaries, in contention for Oscar nominations to be announced January 10, go beyond the confines of the cineplex by creating Do Something About It companion campaigns.

Movie: How To Survive a Plague
Issue: AIDS awareness.
Action plan: Meet, discuss, act.
The film’s section enables people to create or join a “meet-up” inspired by the ACT UP gatherings that historically raised awareness about AIDS.


Movie: Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Issue: Catholic Church pedophilia.
Action plan: Survivors speak out.
Online clearing house connects visitors with groups that include the National Child Abuse Hotline and the super specific Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Movie: Bully
Issue: Bullying.
Action plan: Think local.
The Bully Project outlines an eight-point program that includes a “Pledge” for school principals to discourage bullies. The site also provides a downloadable Action Guide, urges visitors to post advice about how to deal with bullies on the movie’s Facebook page, and solicits stories from “upstanders” who intervene when they see kids getting bullied.

Movie: Detropia
Issue: Urban decay.
Action plan: Soup kitchens, rappers, and salons.
Hewing to the film’s grassroots perspective, Detropia‘s proselytizes on behalf of the city by celebrating Detroit revitalizers, including the Raizup rap group, the weekly “Culturenomics” salon, and Capuchin Soup Kitchen.


About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.