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Masterclass Series Highlights: Impact Talks: Creating Impact with <i>Coral Woman</i>

Masterclass Series Highlights: Impact Talks: Creating Impact with Coral Woman

July, 20 - 2022

In this session, we will discuss how your film can contribute to the advancement of social change, which will delve into the ethics, the practice and the financing of impact production through documentary storytelling using impact toolkit. We invite Anupama Mandloi and Priya Tuvassery, the impact producer and director of Coral Woman, an Indian documentary film about the coral reefs of the Gulf of Mannar, to share their experiences and know-how on how films can change mindsets, behaviours and structures, when put in the right context and connected with strategic changemakers.

The webinar is moderated by Egbert Wits, the Network Development and Research Manager from EngageMedia, a non-profit organisation that promotes digital rights, open and secure technology, and social issue documentary, by combining video, technology, knowledge, and network.

Anupama and Priya share their experiences on the practicality of the impact production.

What is an impact producer? What is it exactly that they do?

(Anupama) When I got into this, I had no clue what would be required. It’s been a journey even for me. The idea for an impact producer is to be able to bring in as many collaborations and partners as possible for the film and the campaign, keep the communication going, and build a strategy around which you can take that message (of the film) forward and figure out what differences can be made through it.

Impact producer walks really closely with director. The relationship between the two has to be one of complete trust. At the end of the day, whatever the plan is, these things are defined by teamwork. The key is to make the journey less solo and more collaboration oriented.

How does it feel having an impact producer on board? Did it change the way you see your films or the direction that it takes?

(Priya) I give the credit to Anupama for everything Coral Woman have achieved today. Anupama came into the project and owned it as hers. She led brainstorming, and always made us have conversations. We both have very clear visions, and that got us connected.

Do you have any advise on how one should conduct an impact campaign?

(Anupama) I think you have to be a little practical. Once you get into something like this, you get into it and in it for the long haul. It’s not something that you could step in and say, “Oh I’m gonna float with this idea for a while”, and then move forward. It’s something that you—even if you do it for your own personal satisfaction—need to see through. 

How do we find out the possibilities of our documentary, in an impact scenario?

(Anupama) Basically, it’s a brainstorming. Do sit with the entire team, break your film down into who you’re speaking to, what is it that your film is saying, and who is it saying it to; what is its message and how do you want that message to change reality on ground. You’re going to have to break it down step by step.

(Priya) As artist and media practitioner, we were really confident in the medium of art in its ability to create change. You can see that all of our projects have a strong art element in it. The sculpture, art residency, the book—everything is an extension of what we’re good at, art. We believe that we have a goal, so that’s what we went forward with. 

How much would it cost for an impact producer to run a good campaign, and how can the director remain helpful in the process?

(Anupama) The director actually is very critical to the process. Director makes the film, and has a certain intent for that film. The impact producer needs to walk with the director to make that impact, not change DNA of that message, so it’s very important that the filmmaker and the impact producer work together.

As for the budget, it could be nothing, to millions, depending on what you want to do, and what you have access to. When we started out, we started out with nothing. Our book, website, webinar, when they can be done, they were done free of cost, as they were done by our partners. For money, it came in later when you apply for grants and funds.

How dynamic was your impact campaign plan, did it ever change significantly along the way, and if that happened, why and how did that happen? 

(Priya) The basic idea stays intact. For example, in our case, it’s our dream to have a book, we also want to do art residency, and have multiple screenings. Those stay intact, only the way we do it change, as we had pandemic affecting things. 

The art residency, we at first wanted it to be completely physical, where we stay together and create the art. Of course, it’s impossible because of the pandemic. Thus, we split it. We brainstormed the idea, concept, and design of the art and locked it virtually; created the art; then met when the situation’s better.

As for the film screening, initially we wanted to do it across coastlines, and we’ve already got a wonderful partner for it. With the pandemic, Anupama came up with the idea to do it virtually, and so we did some webinars that focus on one coast at a time, and assign specific team for it. In Tamil Nadu coast, we have an impact project about pandemic on coastal line, and then when we went to Odessa, we did community and coastal life. Basically, we talk about what’s special about each coast, so people can know about the particular coast, what makes it special, what the issues, and then learn the solutions from experts. 

We have different kind of screenings, with different kind of venues, different kind of audiences, and practically a whole different kind of experiences. Post-screening discussion also very important for our impact, as it is where the conversation happens.  

What kind of impact work can be done in early production stage of a documentary?

Involve the community or subject of your film. 

We are currently working on a film, with issue on land right movement from a state in India. It’s a very 1980s issue, but there’s a current forest right movement also happening. What we’re doing is we train the tribal community, youngsters age 18 or 19, empowering them to tell their stories using mobile phones. We’re upscaling them so that they can do oral history documentation. It’s a community participation. These youngsters will go back to their community, documenting the history of their ancestors, which most of them are unaware of. 

How involved was Uma (the protagonist of Coral Woman) in the impact campaign?

She was very active throughout the process. She always said: I don’t do anything, and we said: that’s fine, you just need to share your story. However, she wants to do something for the impact, and she said: the only thing I know was to paint, so let me paint some corals, you do what you want to do with it. So, all of her paintings, whenever she made a painting, are sent to us and we put it in our website, so anybody can check out our website then to the section that leads to Uma’s paintings. 50% of the money will go to Uma, and 50% of the rest we pledge for the impact campaign. 

Not just Uma, actually, many teammates in our impact campaign continue the journey. People got connected with the subject, and the experience was very moving. 

What do you do if there’s friction between filmmaker, impact producer, and the subject of the film?

(Anupama) If there’s no alignment between filmmaker and the impact producer, I think it’s a recipe for disaster. At the end of the day, the filmmaker and the impact producer are taking a community forward, representing its needs, and forwarding its messages. If there’s a disconnect in this process, and the community either feel cheated, or under-represented or even misrepresented, then you have problem in because you’re not being true to what you’re supposed to do for that film. 

So, I would say, if there’s friction, talk it through and communicate. If that fails, then go your separate ways.

(Priya) It’s not like any other art form, when you deal with the documentary filmmaking. As a filmmaker, I need team members, and it’s a huge responsibility on there, not just about making a film. You’re actually taking a slice of reality, of a person, of community, of anybody who are in the film, and after you completed the film, life doesn’t stop there. The character has a life, the community has a life to go on. So, as a filmmaker, you have to be responsible throughout the journey, and I think in impact, this responsibility continues. 

For whom are you making the film? Who does this film belong to? Just because I’m the filmmaker, do I own the film? What is the role of my subject/s? I find that, as a filmmaker, all of us are equal partners, not just the director, but also the cinematographer, editor, the impact producer, everyone.

Explore impact and impact production further with Impact Field Guide for traditional impact model, and Video for Change Impact Toolkit for alternative impact model. Both can be downloaded for free. Explore EngageMedia or get in touch with Egbert via Watch Coral Woman in Cinemata by EngageMedia, or visit their website.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.