Making a film that makes a point is a skill that is quite different from knowing about cinematography, and from writing a letter, an article or white paper. To make a good film - one that makes the audience agree with you or the point you’re trying to make, you need to do it in the right way
These days, there’s massively more opportunity to use video to get your point across. And when you’ve made your polemic production, you’ve got more chance than ever to get it seen. We’ll talk about this later, but first, let’s look at how to approach your campaign right from the start.
Both sides of the argument
First, it’s important that you understand what it is that you want to convey in your film. You have to understand the structure of your argument.
For example, let’s say that you don’t want your village to be obliterated by a new airport runway.
You need to understand (even if you don’t agree with) both sides of the argument. It’s only by completely understanding the opposition’s position that you’ll be able to make a case against it.
So start by assuming that there are genuine reasons why the runway might need to be built. The first of these would be, presumably:
The airport needs a bigger capacity.
There will be several arguments in favour of the new runway that follow from this.
It will mean more jobs in the local economy.
It will bring more tourist dollars to the region.
It will improve the working conditions of Airport employees.
It will make the airport safer.
And so on.
You will need to do your research to have answers to these.
For example: no, it won’t increase jobs. It may reduce them because of increased automation.
No, it won’t bring more tourist money because the airport is just a Hub anyway. What it does mean is more people merely passing through the city on their way to something else.
It won’t improve overall working conditions because wages are being reduced and fewer staff will be expected to work more for less.
No, it won’t make the airport safer, because with fewer staff, safety will suffer. And so on.
And then you need to have your own arguments against the airport extension.
People will be forced out of their houses.
Those that stay will have increased noise.
Aiding and abetting increased air traffic is not exactly the right way to go in the face of Global Warming etc.
The more work you do on the opposition’s position, the stronger your own will become.
More agreement, not conflict
Try the find areas where you agree with your opponents. This will make them more sympathetic to you and more likely to open up (as they try to appear to be reasonable!) and it will clarify exactly where they differ from you.
If you don’t do this there is a danger that you will argue with each other simply because you know you’re opponents, as opposed to actually addressing the real points.
Don’t base your arguments on preconceptions. Many, if not most, of these will be wrong.
Related to this: don’t assume that “Labels” are correct. “Right wing” and “Left wing” are less and less helpful these days as the world changes in ways nobody expected. And remember, you can have moderation and extremism within just about any group - and often conflicts within the populations carrying the same “label”.
Balance, reasonableness and fairness: these terms are often grouped together, but they don’t mean the same.
You’re not aiming to be balanced, and what broadcasters (my experience is with the BBC) do to try to appear to be balanced is often quite ludicrous.
For example, the BBC will often deal with a subject by getting a scientist to talk about it. And to “balance” the argument, will offer the microphone to someone that doesn’t believe in science! It almost feels like every sane person has to be balanced by someone who’s insane!
This isn’t balance at all. A more balanced approach (and this is how science actually works) would be to bring on another scientist who comes to different conclusions.
The reason why you can never really be balanced is that there is, objectively, only ever going to be one truth - although there will always be a huge spectrum of opinion about what exactly it is.
Fairness is another thing.
You will do your cause little good in the long run if you’re unfair to people. If you have a valid case, then you shouldn’t need to resort to unfairness. Examples of unfairness would be: editing to change the impression of what was actually said, and asking questions that do not allow your opponent to state his or her position,
If you’re unfair to your adversaries then you are giving them ammunition to attack you in their responses. They might even use sections of your own video in one of theirs to show how unfair you’ve been, and they might be extremely unfair to you in their come-back.
It’s worth restating here that if you have a strong case then there’s no need to resort to unfairness. Your job is simply to make your position seem as obvious as possible to your viewers.
You might think that Balance is a good thing. But you’re not trying to be balanced.
Reasonableness is harder to pin down. It’s similar to fairness. In a way, reasonableness is a bargaining point. If you can appear to be utterly reasonable, and your opponent comes across as being unreasonablethen, even if you don’t win the factual argument convincingly, you will end up being the person that viewers are more likely to believe.
Now we move on to the actual questioning of your opponents.
I like to use a type of questioning called the Socratic technique, or at least a very loose variation of it. Essentially, it’s teaching by using questions. Except that you’re not teaching here, but trying to expose the flaws in someone’s argument. It works in pretty much the same way. Get your opponent to make your point for you by asking the right questions. Here’s how it might go. Let’s say the cause you want to promote is opposition to Global Warming (this would work just as well if you wanted prove the opposite!).
Start by saying “How important is our planet to us?”
The answer will obviously be “Very”.
“And so how important is it that we don't destroy it?”
Again, obviously, “Very”.
“Do you think that burning fossil fuels has any effect at all on the atmosphere?”
Only the most hardened climate-change denier would say “no” (although try to avoid confusing your interviewee and your viewer with multiple negatives - I remember an old DOS word processing program called Word Perfect, that, at a crucial point - when you wanted to save your masterpiece - asked a question that seemed like “Is it not the case that you don’t wish to unsave your file...”).
And so your next intervention has to be “So you do think manmade activity affects global warming?
You could argue that this is a trick: you’ve posited an extreme position, that fossil fuels make no effect on the atmosphere, whereas a climate change denier would probably come back and say that in their view, there is an effect, but it is vanishingly small and lost in the much greater cycles in climate change that we’ve seen over the course of known history including several ice-ages.
Don’t be tempted to use devious means to make your case. It will backfire on you and your opponents will say “Their arguments are so weak that they had to resort to X,Y and Z”. This applies to your line of questioning (there’s no point in asking unanswerable questions like “are you still beating your wife”), as well as to your “evidence”.
If you have credible evidence, use it, and say why it’s credible. For example, if you have footage of someone being beaten up by the police, when the police are saying that there was no such violence, show your footage alongside the “official” footage, to place it in context and to show that it happened at the same time. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to use footage that was not of the actual incident, because you will be called out as fake and you will lose your argument - and probably your reputation. Similarly, don’t be tempted to alter what footage you have to prove a point - except if you have to enhance it - but if you do this, state that the footage has been modified to bring out the details, and show a “before and after” shot.
A very powerful technique is to use analogy. You have to do this skilfully and honestly. Don’t let your audience go away thinking that your analogy is reality. Be upfront about it and say that you’re using an analogy to explain something more complex, but that in some or even many ways it is true.
I recently heard a very good example from someone who was trying to talk about the cosmological Big Bang. When he said that *everything* started with the Big Bang, including time itself, someone asked, quite reasonably, I think, how you could possibly have a state of “no time” before the extreme loudness. This is something that’s so outside of our normal way of thinking that it is genuinely hard to imagine. So he used an analogy. He said “well, it’s a bit like trying to go somewhere north of the North Pole!".
Point well made.
The official view
It’s always worth getting an “official” view on the subject you’re discussing. Whether you can get someone in office to go on the record depends a lot on luck but also how you approach the topic. Most organisations have a PR department and they can be very helpful. I have found that a simple approach like “I’m making a documentary about [some issue] and I want to make sure that your organisation has an opportunity to put its point across. To make sure that this happens, can you arrange for me to interview someone?". You’d be surprised how effective this is, although I’ve sometimes been surprised how ineffective it is as well if you’re not a national newspaper or television station. The key is to sound plausible and authoritative.
Finally, you have to decide on the tone of your piece. Complex or detailed scientific arguments make it difficult to capture and hold people’s attention. Where’s it’s not inappropriate, try using humour. Or tell your story like a children’s book: if you do it with suitably-placed irony, you will make your case much more strongly.
So far, it’s all about making your piece. How do you get it out there?
It’s all about social media. Start with your friends on Facebook. Don’t just give them a link to the video, but make it personal. Say “please watch my video. Please try to understand why I feel so strongly about it, and if you feel the same, share it”.
Try to get well-known campaigning organisations to pick up on it. A share or a retweet from one of them can really make all the difference. If you feel like your campaign needs some help, it’s sometimes spending a very small amount on Facebook to promote your posts. You can set a budget - say $15 per day - and your posts will be shown to a very specific set of people; you can choose exactly who you want to see them. I’ve seen this work quite well, but it doesn’t always.
Above all, be certain about your own message. Know the structure of your arguments. You can even try a S.W.O.T analysis (this means Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). The more you test your position, the stronger it will be when you have to present it.
And try to stay open minded. If you have a fixed set of ideas, you might miss new and useful nuances that you can pick up from supporters and opponents alike. Be prepared to learn all the time - even if you’re an expert!