issue 4.1 |  

Journal Issue 4.1
Spring-Summer 2012
Edited by Agatha Beins, Jillian Hernandez, and Deanna Utroske
Editorial Assistant: A.J. Barks
Editorial Intern: Vera Hinsey


Creating Spaces for Community Engagement through Documentary Film: My Social Action Project

By Anna Zailik

   The project I conducted in my college community in central New Jersey brings a new element to the pedagogy of using film in the classroom, employing it as a way to empower adolescents in the Youth Advocate Program, a non-profit agency that works with at-risk youth. Over the course of a seven-week curriculum, not only did I use documentaries to discuss society's injustices, I also encouraged the fourteen to sixteen year olds to draw from these films to start a dialogue about an issue in their own community through a film screening.
   Because of its ability to reach across cultures and put a human face on social issues, documentary film seemed ideal as a tool to stimulate social change within the small group during our weekly meetings and eventually in the community at large. While doing research on using documentary film to teach youth, I most often found information about teaching youth to create documentary films. While this is a creative skill that also aids in achieving social change, I wanted to focus on helping youth achieve change in their community by showing a film and then fostering a collective dialogue after the screening, all of which is meant to encourage social action. My project builds on the communication model in the publication "Communication for Social Change Working Paper Series" (Figueroa et al. 2002), which focuses on transforming community dialogue into collective action. According to this model, it starts with a "catalyst/stimulus," that leads to a conversation. If this conversation is effective, it has the potential to lead greater action taken by the community members. Activism was the goal of the community screening: to increase the potential that people will take action on the issue presented to them by the film and explored the subsequent conversation. Thus, this project was designed to first engage the students through film and, second, for the students to use a film we watched together to engage their community in a post-screening discussion about an issue they see in their own lives.
  The first selected film was New Muslim Cool (2009), which tells the story of a Puerto Rican-American rapper who leaves street life and converts to Islam and then confronts the realities of the post-September 11 world after his mosque is raided by the FBI. However, it was incredibly difficult to hold the students' attention for the 90-minute film. I made the assumption that we all had the ability to empathize in the same way, but it became clear that the teens were uninterested because they did not see their personal stories reflected in this film. At the end of the film, I tried incorporating the USA PATRIOT Act into our conversation, but the responses I was getting from most of the students were more and more rife with boredom. I then came to the realization that there are college-educated people who find documentary film boring and that I was going to have to combine the right activities with the right film in order to get these students excited about planning this screening.
    The next film we watched together was Off and Running (2009), a coming-of-age story about an adopted African-American Brooklyn teenager struggling with her identity and her place in her family after she reaches out to her birth mother. For this film, I showed only short segments chosen in POV's pre-made lesson plan available for free on their website ( This included discussion in between the clips and an activity that consisted of drawing a self-portrait with things that define who we are. While this meeting went much better than the first, it was not until our last meeting when we watched the film Presumed Guilty (2010) that the students truly empathized with the protagonist and could identify similar issues in their own community. Based on my experiences with the first two screenings I developed the accompanying lesson plan, which outlines the activities I planned for Presumed Guilty.

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