Film, Faith, Justice

Using documentary film for social justice work in faith-rooted communities

By Caitlin Boyle, Project Manager, Hartley FaithDoc Impact Labs, and Ellen Schneider, Active Voice Lab

People of the book have quickly become people of the screen.”
-Ryan Parker, M.Div, PhD

Our spiritual encounters are increasingly interactive. Documentaries and other kinds of media are jumpstarting meaningful discussion in churches, mosques, synagogues, and other faith-rooted settings.


Tell meaningful stories
Storytelling is a tool to help people make sense of the world and is as old as civilization. Often it’s at the very root of religious practice. You’ve seen the familiar images: from cave paintings to stone tablets, to the Gutenberg press, to a flickering hand-cranked projector.

For generations, people have found community and faith and strengthened their spiritual practices by sharing ethical perspectives through history and creativity.

Faith leaders and members of faith communities, particularly those who are focused on social change, have long used powerful stories to lift people up; inspire reflection about ethics, justice, and spirituality; and offer pathways to action.

Many faith leaders now recognize that incorporating independent documentary film into their work can help galvanize their congregation or members about social justice issues and engage new community members to participate in a social justice ministry, outreach effort, or direct community action.


Independent documentary isn’t like other media.
Making an independent documentary is a long, specialized, and very expensive process.

Unlike news segments, social-media videos, or YouTube content, independent documentaries are typically:

  • Deeply researched, often over the course of a year or more
  • Intensely fact-checked (to meet distributor’s journalistic standards and legal requirements)
  • Carefully crafted, typically over at least two years of filming, editing, and finishing (tasks like music composition, animation, and sound design).
  • Longitudinal in approach, meaning film participants and experts are followed and filmed over the course of months, years, or even decades.
  • Costly (usually between $100,000 and $1,000,000 for one film!)


But filmmakers and spirit-rooted, justice-minded leaders have a lot in common.
Both groups are usually passionate, they believe in the power of stories, and many are deeply involved in social justice.

Both understand the collective power of gathering people together and moving them emotionally by helping them walk in others’ shoes.

Both groups often have multiple vocations or jobs, are under-resourced, and work hard to find an audience…or to keep the audience they already have engaged in their ongoing work.


Documentaries can be 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
  • Attracting newcomers
  • Challenging a dominant narrative
  • Encouraging congregants to take a concrete social action
  • Initiating or deepening coalitions or interfaith activities
  • Raising funds


Hartley’s FaithDoc Impact Labs focus on compelling storytelling as a tool to strengthen justice movements.

For more information, contact Sarah Masters at [email protected].


Hartley Media Impact Initiative
The Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn equips faith leaders and communities with media tools to amplify their prophetic witness and advance their justice work. Hartley Impact broadens the network of faith communities committed to leveraging the power of story for social good.


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