“Our experiences have shown us how film can engage new voices within the climate movement, it can strengthen the connection between local influencers and grassroots power, and it can get the attention of elected officials.”
– Megha Agrawal Sood, Director of Programs at Exposure Labs 

“When we’re transported into a story we’re less likely to counter-argue because we don’t perceive intent to persuade.”
Annie Neimand, PhD

Exposure Labs’ Director of Programs Megha Agrawal Sood and Research Director of the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida Annie Neimand PhD recently presented at the University of California Irvine’s Economic Transition in the Anthropocene. The conference focused on the political economy and its role in shaping the Anthropocene (Earth’s most recent geologic time period where humans are the strongest force impacting our environment). Annie and Megha came to the conference with a unique perspective on how stories can unlock new possibilities for organizations working to solve problems within the Anthropocene. 

Annie kicked off the session by looking at what the social science says about effective storytelling (research we’ve used to inform our own organizing work!). She noted that a story’s narrative arc offers tools to activate new audiences by tapping into the human emotions elicited by your characters, conflict, and resolution. Building on Annie’s research, Megha identified four ways that we’ve utilized film to forge greater connections with audiences on important issues like climate change:

1. Show, Don’t Tell

When director Jeff Orlowski joined esteemed photographer James Balog in Greenland to film Chasing Ice, they witnessed a glacier calving, the largest ever captured on film. This rarely filmed event, paired with James Balog’s dynamic, personal journey, was a story that Orlowski believed could challenge how we think about climate change. After the release, the team organized screenings in red and purple communities, enabling audiences to experience this unprecedented, visual evidence of our changing planet for themselves. By allowing people to come to their own conclusions rather than telling them what to think, the film was able to shift audiences’ preconceived notions on climate change 

2. Evoke Awe to Inspire

While Chasing Ice captured the iconic, quintessential image of a glacier melt, Chasing Coral switched gears to focus on the rarely-seen world hidden beneath the waves. Rather than relying solely on interviews, the film opens audiences up to what the climate science says by immersing viewers in the wonder and beauty of coral reefs. By tapping into our universal love of the ocean, Chasing Coral avoids the regular doom and gloom associated with climate change and  was able to reach a broader audience. So far there have been 2,000 community screenings across the world, hosted by diverse groups like fishermen in Maine, churches in Georgia, and tech-driven hackathons

3. Connect the Dots

Early in our organizing work with Chasing Coral we met the Conservation Voters of South Carolina. The organization was actively working to build the political will necessary to advance clean energy legislation. While Chasing Coral’s setting of The Great Barrier Reef may feel a world away from South Carolina, we saw an opportunity to connect the story to the many environmental challenges being felt in this coastal state. In close partnership with CVSC we created the Dear South Carolina tour, using screenings as a tool to build visible support for clean energy and  attract the attention of elected officials. Audiences connected the film to changes they were seeing in their own backyards, from rising electric bills to disappearing coastlines and wrote messages to their local legislators calling for a transition to clean energy. As a result of this grassroots movement,  the Energy Freedom Act passed unanimously in both the state House and Senate.

4. Design Context (Not Just the Content)

Through our partnership with the Environmental Voter Project, we seized an opportunity to target passive environmentalists, a group that prioritizes the environment, but rarely makes it to the polls to vote. We knew that if we wanted to engage with this group successfully, we had to meet them where they are. That meant designing events that took place at the regular hotspots in their community and making them the kind of fun, social events they might seek out on their own. To do this, we created the Big Screen Bloc Party, a film series to help grow the environmental voting bloc in Atlanta ahead of mid-term elections. We held events at approachable venues, like breweries, and featured local, engaging sustainability champions, like former NFL Falcons fullback and eco-hero Ovie Mughelli. At the end of these parties, audience members were asked to take a pledge to vote in all elections with the environment top of mind.