Robert West was working as a film programmer at Charlotte’s Mint Museum when he became increasingly interested in documentaries with a social context – films about race, health care, women’s and gay rights – because “they seemed to be the most powerful stories. I would watch 200 people in a room be collectively moved by a story.”
But West noticed something else. After the lights went up, and the q&a session with the filmmaker began, the first question often would be “What can I do?”
“And,” says West, “the filmmakers sometimes had a really good answer, and sometimes had no answer. And I felt this was missing an opportunity for this audience experience. I felt part of my responsibility was to enrich the audience experience, beyond just the passive viewing of the film.”
So West began to invite local activists to the screenings, people working on the issues the films were addressing. These were folks who could tell audience members what was being done, how they could volunteer, where to give money. Then West took that basic idea and ran with it – partnered with filmmaker/activist Judith Helfand, he founded Wilmington-based Working Films, a media organization that helps socially conscious filmmakers connect with their target audiences, the activists and other interested parties organizing around specific issues.
“There was this gap,” says West, “between the potential for social issue documentaries and the impact they could have.”
West says this in the apartment he lives in on the second floor of a converted 1912 fire house at Fifth and Castle, where Working Films has been headquartered since 2001. The space is filled with antique-y bric a brac and works painted by West, who has a degree in painting and printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth. The ground floor is the operations center of the organization, which has a yearly budget of $1.2 million, mostly from foundation sources, and features large posters of documentaries Working Films has helped promote, including the Emmy Award-winning Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.
West, 56, grew up in Philadelphia and Richmond. He worked at the Mint Museum for several years before starting Working Films, and moved to Wilmington when he was looking for office space, after a friend who was living here told him she was thinking of buying the fire house and asked if he’d be interested in signing on as a long-term tenant.
He’s never regretted the decision. West enjoys the laidback local lifestyle, and as a kayaker, loves the fact that he can run down the street and dip into the Cape Fear River. He also sees it as a smart location choice in a strategic sense.
“Mostly for funders, it’s intriguing and interesting,” he says, “ they’re always looking for a geographic spread.”
But West also spends a lot of time in New York – “We have to have a presence there, because that’s where it’s all happening,” he says – and London, where Working Films recently opened an office that aims to promote UK-based documentaries.
The organization operates in several ways, helping about 50 films and filmmakers a year. Filmmaker residencies, held at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, involve seven or eight invited filmmakers.
Working Films researches the issues involved in their movies, finds out what non-profits are working on them, then helps the filmmaker find target audiences, the right setting for screenings, how the documentary can be tied into policy issues. Strategy summits take one film and for a whole day and pair the filmmaker with interested non-profits, then helps them strategize a two to three-year release campaign.
There is also what West calls non-traditional public relations.
“We are connecting films to the most interested audiences through the use of social media tools,” he said. “We are using Facebook, most of it is Internet based, and that cuts through the barriers of getting your message out through more traditional media.”
“It’s one thing to just make a film, it’s another to make a film and have it have some impact,” says Dan Habib, whose documentary, Including Samuel, about the mainstreaming of children with mental disabilities, was the subject of a strategy summit attended by 20 interested organizations, including the National Education Association and the Boys and Girl Scouts.
“I needed to create an outreach strategy, and that’s where Working Films came in,” said Habib. “I realized they could maximize the relationships I already had with organizations, and create new partnerships. So we could get all these people in one room for a day, and say how can we use this film as a catalyst for social change? And how can you use this film to support your work?”
This form of outreach can reach significant amounts of people. For Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, about the torture scandal in the Iraq prison, Working Films partnered with the ACLU, which was working on torture policy issues. The ACLU organized more than 900 screenings of the film over the course of four months, and other non-profits arranged 3,500 more.
As far as West is concerned, this is only the tip of the iceberg. He believes that with all the new delivery systems out there – visual media that can be downloaded onto cell phones, for example – “it’s never been a better time for documentaries. We’re seeing people accessing these stories through all kinds of new engines.”
And ultimately, it’s all about story. Which is why West got involved in the first place.
“What we are looking for are those films that will engage audiences,” says West. “The best film is going to be the best tool. The power of the story comes first. And that’s what these films do; they ignite a dialogue where it might have been stuck before.”