Filmmakers “share” a story

Creatives and change-makers have a lot in common. They’re usually passionate, they believe in the power of stories, and many are deeply involved in social justice.

The Feeling Of Being WatchedPhoto Credit: Shuling Yong

They understand the collective power of gathering people together and moving them emotionally by helping them walk in others’ shoes. Less obvious are their more practical challenges: having multiple vocations or jobs, being under-resourced, and often struggling to find an audience.

What Filmmakers Should Know About Faith-Rooted Partners

Their aims and objectives vary considerably

Film offers faith-rooted partners a host of possibilities that can advance their spiritual, internal, and socially-oriented mission (although some will reject the notion of “objectives” completely).
For example, more and more churches are moving from top-down “programs” to more participatory “engagement.” Creating film-fueled resources adds to such engagement work and takes the planning stress off ministers, rabbis, imams, etc.

Independently produced media, especially powerful and nuanced documentaries, are excellent resources for:

  • Providing real life examples of morality, faith, and the world around us
  • Lifting up underheard stories and experiences
  • Engaging congregants more deeply in the spiritual community and attracting newcomers
  • Challenging a dominant narrative
  • Encouraging congregants to take a concrete social action
  • Initiating or deepening coalitions or interfaith activities
  • Raising funds

“[We’ve] realized that all of the arts are part of the human experience. [Art] opens spiritual vortexes and stimulates deeper and more connected work.”


Suggestion: Research how and whether your faith-rooted partners have used film in the past. Some have worked with a growing pipeline of “internal” media that comes from a religious denomination or religion-focused production company. Others may differentiate that from independent work and have sophisticated models in place. You may be customizing their plan or making recommendations to a first-timer. And never assume that your expectations, values, or language mean the same thing to both of you. Check out the Three M prompts!

“Congregation life is complicated. Yes, there’s charisma and celebrity. But it’s not all adulation for a leader. Who gets to talk and who doesn’t? How do we live together? The longing for a new way is very strong.”


They are hardly monolithic

For starters, filmmakers should invest time in learning about the values, beliefs, and cultures of the faith-rooted groups they hope to engage. Some traditions encourage critical thinking and group reflection, while others hold firmly to doctrine as articulated by ordained clergy. Many identify themselves as socially progressive, conservative, inclusive, or fundamentalist. Others avoid labels that suggest political affiliation, and some are questioning roles and power. But none of them appreciate filmmakers who seem like they’re riding in to save the day. Indeed, many faith communities have been doing incredible social work for ages.

Perhaps most importantly, faith-rooted groups that are most likely to embrace film do so because of their ongoing mission or vision. It may be a current campaign or an ancient prophecy. It is always consistent with religious paths. I wish I’d understood this better; in retrospect I think Active Voice may have been a little aggressive about proffering our own ideas for how to use the film, or what issue to tackle. You can do better by listening more.

Suggestion: Don’t assume that a faith-rooted group understands the topic of your film the same way you do, much less what “change” would look like. Why do you think your film would be useful in this context? What values do you think you share? How willing are you to let go of your intended strategies and objectives, if necessary? Then listen carefully, and mutually decide if there’s a fit.

How faith-rooted partners are using film

Commonly, these groups connect in a variety of settings based on traditions, age, interests, and other factors. Here are just a few settings for screening film:

  • Weekly holy days or prayer times (Fridays for Muslims, Saturday for Jews, Sundays for Christians)
  • Small group sessions
  • Religion classes
  • Community center events (secular or religious)
  • Interfaith gathering
  • Individual viewing

Increasingly, religious services are streamed and Facebook Live-d, and people connect to their community online. In many of them, the story of the community is evolving on a screen and screens, be they hand held or set up in the middle of the sanctuary.

Not all churches are “mega.” In fact, many congregations operate on diminishing budgets. Some are concerned about challenges such as diminishing memberships, millennial trends, and rising costs.

Suggestion: Keep in mind that your faith-rooted partner may be interested in specific, affordable ways to integrate the film into its practice. A megachurch may envision an audience of thousands watching a jumbo screen, while a small place of worship may need a chaptered DVD to screen over several sessions. A clergyperson may be interested in short excerpts to help animate a sermon, while an Islamic community center might invite neighbors to discuss topical issues. As filmmakers may have limits on what can be screened when and where, all these explorations are essential.

“Congregations are looking for how to keep the building afloat; it’s always where the rubber hits the road. What are the possibilities of bringing creatives in to see possibilities of their brand expanding?”


“ We had plans in motion for a screening at a church. After we designed the graphics and coordinated logistics, the Social Justice committee put on the brakes. They wanted more time to consult congregants. They actually had more authority than the minister! I didn’t know the correct channels to go through and ended up with a defunct plan as a result.”


Who’s Who: People Have a Range of Responsibilities

Size, denomination, budget, belief systems, and other factors influence whom you’ll be working with. Their relative experiences with working with creatives will range widely. Some can make decisions, while others will need to get buy-in from leaders.

Most importantly, whomever you work with at a faith-rooted organization is a unique member of that spiritual community. They may be paid or volunteer. Not everyone will be comfortable with a detailed Prenup, or even addressing the three M’s. When you find out who the liaison will be, start by getting to know a little about them. Here are some common titles and responsibilities:

  • Seminarians
  • Campus coordinators
  • Communications staff
  • Directors
  • Administrative support
  • Facilities management
  • Finance
  • Outreach
  • Spiritual leadership or clergy
    (pastor, reverend, minister, rabbi, imam, etc.)
  • Small groups coordinators

Suggestion: Ask about their internal decision-making process, including who will provide direct input into the process. For example, the outreach person may need to get permission from the spiritual leader, and will then work with the communications team and the facilities manager to shore up details. Alternately, smaller faith-rooted groups may have a single volunteer who handles events.

Transformation matters; Transactions are a different story

Do not assume that faith-rooted partners will interact with you the same way that, say, a secular nonprofit (such as a library programmer, a campus organizer, or a think tank) might. Many insist that all of their relationships must be based on trust, equity, mutual respect and similar values. These “transformational” or “right relationships” require everyone to “walk the walk” by building these pro-social tenets into all their connections and plans.

For many, this means eschewing the fast-tracked, market-influenced quid pro quo deals that dehumanize so many of our daily interactions. Those are commonly referred to as “transactional” relationships, in which resources, metrics and even legalities come first.

This is complicated for many reasons, and will be addressed in various ways in METHOD and MONEY sections, below. We’ve heard concerns from several faith-rooted leaders that filmmakers can seem pushy, or tone-deaf, or too concerned about fees or objectives when first approaching them. That’s understandable: many faith leaders are used to getting their content for free via downloads, streaming, or internal sources and therefore may be surprised by filmmakers’ business models. Some, particularly those working on deep social issues, are frequently approached by creatives who may not be familiar with the way faith-rooted organizations make decisions. Predominantly transactional relationships can be deal-breakers for some faith-rooted partners.

“ I don’t want to sign contracts; [filmmakers] offend me with that behavior. Be friendly and easy, build a relaxed, non-litigious environment with us.”


Suggestion: There is no quick fix to close this gap, but clear person-to-person communication is an essential first step. Faith-rooted partners must educate themselves about how filmmakers survive. Filmmakers must understand that these potential partners may be bringing deeply felt beliefs to the table.


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