Attendees at Color Congress' inaugural National Convening in Atlanta last September. Photo by Leola Studios LLC
Attendees at Color Congress' inaugural National Convening in Atlanta last September. Photo by Leola Studios LLC

Ecosystem for a New American Narrative

The field of documentary impact has officially entered its maturation phase. For over two decades, the documentary film sector has developed tools and methodologies – even professional strategists – in an effort to maximize the impact of powerful nonfiction work.  Though relegated to a corner of the broader field of cultural strategy, the practice of documentary impact rests on the belief that the form is uniquely powerful at educating audiences, challenging persistent attitudes and beliefs, and amplifying social justice efforts through a mix of complex, nuanced storytelling and rigorous journalism. 

More recently, the field of documentary impact has evolved to consider the ways in which filmmakers of color leverage this powerful form to empower, validate, heal and mobilize their own communities into action.  The documentary form has been liberated from its colonial past, where communities of color were historically the subjects, not the authors (with some fantastic exceptions). And though the film sector is still largely homogeneous, the democratized form has found its way beyond the walls of elite universities, rarefied film festivals and corporate streaming platforms and into diverse communities. 

Thankfully, documentarians of color are supported by a brilliant network of organizations led largely by fellow filmmakers-turned-leaders.  And for the first time, this powerful ecosystem is connected, more resourced than before, and poised to reshape the documentary field. In 2022, Sahar Driver and I founded Color Congress to bolster the ecosystem of people of color-led and serving documentary organizations across the US by directing new resources and infrastructure support to strengthen their work. Our membership includes film festivals, artist support organizations, identity collectives, field advocacy groups and impact organizations- all focused on the power of the documentary form and the authorship of people of color. 

Our membership’s work shows that documentary holds a unique power for people of color. Historically, documentary impact has been about changing the hearts and minds of general audiences, one film at a time. But in the hands of people of color, documentary impact often begins with healing and empowering the filmmaker, the protagonists and their own communities by centering people of color as agents of change, rather than as subjects of history and victims of powerful forces. Filmmakers of color often make films about issues they are close to, and so these stories are often deeply personal and come from experience.  As a result, the storytelling cuts through the kinds of assumptions and misconceptions that can make it into stories made by people who are further from the issues and communities the stories are about, or that are designed to appeal to “mass audiences,” a catchall concept that usually means films that tastemakers and gatekeepers respond to personally. Storytelling by and for people of color more accurately reflects our lived realities and is powerful (and more relatable) precisely because of its complexity and specificity

But surprisingly, filmmakers of color are often discouraged to admit that their target audience are their own communities, the assumption being that films targeted for communities of color won’t appeal to a general audience. Take for example filmmaker Sean Wang, whose two films, the Academy-nominated documentary, Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó and the Sundance-winning fiction film, Have a Good Summer – evolve from his own specific experiences as a first generation Taiwanese American. He argues, “People always talk about this idea of an audience as this ambiguous sea of people. But at the end of the day, you’re an audience member, I’m an audience member, my friends are audience members, and we all watch movies, we all look to a screen as entertainment…. The fact that other people can see a version of their grandmothers and their relationship with their grandmothers [in Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó], that says a lot about the empathy and the experiences that can translate across cultures, across different backgrounds.” 

Our members create spaces for audiences of color to engage with powerful nonfiction work in ways that broaden their aesthetic tastes, strengthen their political sensibilities, and provide bridges to allied communities who share their challenges and experiences. The organizations that make up this ecosystem are deeply focused on the communities they were built to serve–whether identity-based or geographic –communities that were not getting the appropriate care and attention they deserved in the film industry. The support they offer is attentive to their unique and intersectional experiences. 

Our members also ensure people of color have the space to engage with the nonfiction form by providing creative and political homes for them to think critically about their filmmaking process, the stories they tell and the impact of their work.  They support filmmakers and audiences of color by building trust and relationships with them. Many prioritize transparency, ethics, and accountability and as a result the relationships they foster are deep and not transactional or exploitative. And this new orientation to the form has begun to challenge and shift the way all documentary films are made, by centering care for the filmmaker, protagonist and audiences impacted by the work.

Now, as a newly connected ecosystem of over 100 documentary organizations, Color Congress members are weaving together a network that has the power to reshape durable narratives at the grassroots level. A new report that we recently released on our membership demonstrated that last year alone, our members collectively reached over 15,000 documentary filmmakers; over 10,000 documentary film professionals; and more than 20M audience members. We estimate that all filmmakers of color will engage with one or more of these organizations throughout their career. Together, this grassroots infrastructure is shaping a new American narrative that is a more accurate reflection of our communities and experiences. Because this storytelling is supported by independent organizations focused on authentic perspectives, the stories emanating from this ecosystem are not beholden to commercial tastes and interests. This ecosystem serves as a vital defense for independent nonfiction cinema at a time of increasing media consolidation and distrust.

We believe the future of documentary impact will be measured not by a single film on a single issue, but by a growing wave of prosocial, progressive, and pluralistic narratives moving across communities of color, enabled and supported by this powerful new ecosystem.

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