Sandra Tabares-Duque has curated and produced film festivals and cultural activities in Europe and Latin America. In recent years she has focused on the production of diverse forms of audiovisual and transmedia storytelling.
Her portfolio includes the multiple award-wining Quipu Project (UK/Peru), which connects the voices of people affected by a campaign of forced sterilisation in Peru in the 1990s, and InnSæi (UK/Iceland), which offers radical insights on how to re-think and sense the world today. Other projects include MiCasa – MyHome, a transmedia piece of storytelling that invites the audience to think about the meanings of a house and home in the circumstances of displacement and social inequality.
Sandra identifies her role as an audiovisual and social impact producer. Her projects go beyond telling compelling stories, building hidden narratives or raising awareness of social justice. She uses powerful methods of doing all those things in a way that inspires people to act for a better and fairer world.
You define yourself professionally as a social impact producer. What is that exactly?
Impact production is a relatively new term that has been used to describe how the work that we do in the film or audiovisual industry can be used to foster social change. I know the term impact production can sometimes generate different ideas of what impact really means. It would be more accurate to call it social impact production as we are talking about social transformation. We depart from the belief that films – or any audiovisual form in which we narrate stories – generate an emotional engagement. There are studies in neuroscience that suggest that when you engage emotionally with something your brain reacts in a way that makes it easier for you to do something about it. In that sense, the stories we tell have the ability to mobilise the audience at different levels of impact.
In order to do this, we need a strong and compelling story. Next, we need to bring together different social actors to make transformation happen. In this way, social impact production starts when a film tells the story of an injustice or challenge – climate change, social justice, human rights abuses. The support needed can come in many different forms: signing a petition, raising money to release someone from prison, spreading the word about an issue, attracting the attention of scientists to focus on a particular injustice, change minds and behaviours, and many other impact dynamics. So there are different ways that people can react and transform reality, opening a path to social change.
What kinds of social change can a film or documentary drive and how does it manifest in your work?
Doc Society, a London-based organisation, has been working with social impact production and they identified four impact dynamics.
– The first one is building communities; a good example would be the Quipu Project that worked with indigenous people living in rural areas of Peru and affected by a forced sterilisation campaign where they organised themselves as a community to actively raise their voices and seek justice.
– Changing minds is when individuals change the way they look at an issue, which was also a major objective of the Quipu Project.
– Changing behaviours is a change in the way we do things. For example, with In Bag It!, people were encouraged to use less plastic. Black Fish showed how whales at SeaWorld were being mistreated and people stopped going to the shows, which meant that many marine parks had to close or stopped keeping whales in captivity.
– Finally, changing structures creates a dynamic influence at the policy level.
Why is listening so important for a social impact documentary maker?
Everything we do is tinted by our own way of looking at the world. We can never really be completely objective about a third person’s story but we can at least try to be faithful, avoid our own judgment, or misrepresent the truth. You need to be open-minded and listen carefully to what individuals have to say so that the story is genuine.
When you work on a film with different groups around an issue, it is crucial that everyone understands each other’s needs in order to reach agreements and compromises about the final product.
If you can empathise with someone then you can contribute to their aspirations and support them. Listening is the key to empathy and identifying people’s needs. I always try to bring this approach to the teams I work with. I would say that to be a good documentary maker you need to keep quiet and let the world around you talk.
I think you went a bit further in one of your documentaries and explored intuition as a way to enable social change. Can you tell us a bit about this?
‘InnSæi: The Power of Intuition’ is a documentary about intuition and mindfulness. In Icelandic the word for intuition is ‘InnSæi’ but it also has other meanings. ‘To see within’, meaning to know yourself, and to know yourself well enough to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes. It also means ‘the sea within’. And it can mean ‘to see from the inside out’.
We began in 2012. It wasn’t that long ago but at that time the concept of mindfulness was not as popular as it is now. The idea explored in the documentary is that if you change yourself you can transform the world around you. That brings you to awareness of the individual responsibility for your own actions in terms of their potential to transform the world around you.
Our aim was to understand how individuals from different groups in our society are applying their intuition. We talked to professionals from the art and culture industry, environmentalists, and lecturers at Harvard University who educate future leaders and teach them about intuition and mindfulness. The hope is that these new leaders will connect with the world differently and more consciously. Peace negotiators talked to us about the use of intuition when mediating between the sides in the context of a conflict. Finally, we explored the experience in schools around the world that had implemented mindfulness education and techniques. We talked to British schoolchildren who are learning how to cope better in today’s world by unlocking the power of nature and mindfulness.
It looks like co-creation has become a trend that is highlighting the value of collaboration and a multiple-perspective approach. In practice, it seems to be much more complicated than on paper. What do you think and what is your own experience?
When you go to a museum and see a piece you might ask yourself: Who is the curator behind this piece? Why has he/she selected this piece to be shown and why he is presenting the piece in this particular way?
The same happens in a film. As a film maker: what is the voice you decide to air or the story you select to tell? There will always be voices that won’t get heard or taken into account. When we work with a group of people, all the perspectives matter because in their own singularity they build the whole.
When you co-create and work with different perspectives what you are actually doing is bringing the dynamics of the real world into a creative project. In order for me to understand what is happening to a particular community, I need to be able to make sense of what is going on around it too. If I have the chance, I want to bring them together, listen to them and allow them to talk and interact. That will give me a much richer, more colourful picture and a much greater understanding of the story. There is also the beauty of plurality of voices and ways of doing. However, it is not always easy to manage diversity. This is one of the challenges of co-creation. Two years ago the MIT Co-Creation Studio released a manifesto to define co-creation in the context of the media industry. They talk about co-creation as a method that offers alternatives to a single-authored vision, where projects evolve from within communities and with people, rather than being made for or about them. It is fantastic that they mapped and analysed the work many of us have been doing for a while and put it together in the manifesto.
When you bring people together you can create something greater. In the Quipu Project, for instance, we brought together academics, creative technologists, women who had been affected by the sterilisation programme, film makers, human rights defenders, journalists, etc. This plurality is fantastic for the project but managing it can be a real challenge. Diversity of perspectives means multiple ‘languages’. The method academics use to tell a story for a research paper has nothing to do with the way film makers tell stories.
You just drew a very clear picture of… a messy situation in a co-creation context. How do you manage this?
As a producer, my job is precisely to be able to find the common language. Co-creation is key but it is really hard at a practical level. In order to better manage these differences and difficulties which can complicate the project, there are tools such as a ‘prenup’. At the beginning of the project, when everyone shares a view and is really excited about it, then you agree on some principles and sign an agreement.
The plurality of perspectives results in taking positions and making decisions about which voices are the ones that are representative.
Your most recent project, ‘Corona Haikus’, is set in the context of the global lockdown offering people a space to express their emotions in a poetic way. How did this idea come about and why this format?
Corona Haikus was born of this particular pandemic lockdown moment that we are going through and is a collaboration with Sandra Gaudenzi and many contributors.
Like many people, we found ourselves with everything cancelled and a host of activities that had just disappeared and not even knowing what we were going to do the next day. Corona Haikus started from the idea of sharing your Corona lockdown life through the poetic form of a visual haiku – a short form of Japanese poetry. It is an invitation to post a short text and three images and to be mindful and look at the confinement from an alternative place – hopefully different from fear and chaos – through the beauty we have around us. It was an invitation to use your phone for something other than the latest news about COVID-19.
Sandra and I were clear about making Corona Haikus collaborative and on an existing platform so we ended up having to use Facebook – not our favourite platform but we have to admit it is a fantastic platform for a collaborative global project like ours. A curated selection of Corona Haikus is now on a website.
The community of people participating in the project now totals over 1,000. There are people from all over the world: India, Arab Emirates, Australia, Latin America, Japan, Europe, etc. Over a 1,000 visual haikus have now been posted. The creation of a community in a moment like this one – in which we are separated and divided apart – has been important for many of us.
The subjects of the visual haikus are diverse, with some featuring objects like plastic bags, dirty dishes, beds, views from outside or missing nature. Every week sees a volunteer curator from the Corona Haikus community selecting a number of haikus per day to be published on the website.
People create and express their playfulness on the platform which has brought together a memory archive of this precise moment in time and in different parts of the world. One observation is that experiences are very similar across geographies and political spectrums. This collective memory compiles not only the beauty of the images and words but also a historical account of how people have experienced the lockdown.
This is very interesting, what are you planning to do with it? What is next? If there is anything you can plan.
Now that the lockdowns are ending, we have asked our community to post a ‘good-bye’ visual haiku. We are also encouraging people to think about doing exhibitions with all the material posted and create new work from it. We have been thinking about finding alternative ways to do the exhibitions. The same way as these days we can watch films ‘together-apart’, so we can build a sense of togetherness with digital exhibitions. Everybody is now re-thinking projects and replacing physical spaces to bring people together in other formats.
You have explored the art of narratives and telling stories. Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
We are all storytellers!
This pandemic is taking us through myriad challenges but is also opening a horizon of opportunities. Imagine we are now in 2030, what change would you like to see in the world as a result of the coronavirus?
Right now I can only focus on today and find really it hard to go beyond the end of the week. I make plans with my projects every day; for instance, yesterday we were working on a script for a film and we couldn’t say when we would be able to go out to shoot, to meet a community and whether meeting them was responsible or under which protocols it would be permitted. But more importantly, we didn’t know whether our story was going to be true in a few months’ time. It feels like we need to re-think how we do things and approach everything we do.
Which are the two key lessons you have learned so far as a person focused on making a social impact with your work?
The first thing I take into account when I think about social impact is that I have to understand the needs of the various groups I am working with.
The lesson learned is what we have been talking about, being able to listen and through the people’s stories make sure you contribute to it, by being their voice, not yours.
Probably I would say that we, film makers, are instruments for others and at the service of others. Let’s allow ourselves to be an instrument for other people’s voices and needs.
Finally, I learned that in order to articulate the different elements you work with to create change, you need other people. You need to collaborate to transform our society.
Mónica Nagore Santandreu. I am passionate about social innovation as a tool to tackle our most urgent social challenges. I currently work for The Young Foundation designing and executing complex multi-stakeholder projects and supporting community-led and intermediary organisations to co-create positive change locally.
Previously I worked for the Innovation department at the City of York Council managing a transnational project with the cities of San Sebastian, Syracuse and Tallinn and supporting the transformation team. For several years I worked at Minorca Council in Spain where I led various departments in the areas of housing, innovation and employment.
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