Today: July 17, 2024


With the evolution of ‘do-good’ feature documentaries and the fund-raising that surrounds it, is charity the new black?

With the evolution of ‘do-good’ feature documentaries and the fund-raising events that surrounds them, is charity the new black?

Cultural phenomenon has turned into cultural philanthropy with the rise of films about driving social change. Just like Pop-Up cinemas continue to, well, pop up everywhere, recent months have seen the rise of a certain type of documentary – those that can make a difference – and the public then playing an active part. Whether it be a financial donation or holding a fundraising Indie screening (Life In A Day is currently doing the rounds), doing your bit for society within this medium is, as the say in fashion-speak, on trend.

A Small Act: a heartwarming documentary on DVD release (20 Jun), centres on the life story of Chris Mburu, who as a small boy living in a mud-hut in a Kenyan village, his life changes dramatically when a Swedish stranger sponsors his education. Now a United Nations Human Rights Commissioner, Mburu runs his own scholarship program to replicate the kindness he once received. Jennifer Arnold’s film documents the ripple effect one small act can have, with audience members continuing the cycle with their own good deeds.

The film debuted at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival with Microsoft founder Bill Gates seen amongst the crowd in a standing ovation for the documentary. No one could have predicted what happened next; audience members started donating on the spot. One woman wrote out a cheque for $5,000 and challenged everyone to do the same. Another matched her offer. After each screening, people handed over fistfuls of dollar bills – whatever they could afford. By the close of the 10-day festival $90,000 had been donated to the Hilde Back Fund, run by Chris. A few weeks later, an anonymous donor gave $250,000. Whether that was Mr Gates, himself, no one knows, or is saying.

Such is the impact of the film, ‘cast’ and crew have come to expected the unexpected with tears of empathy being the only guarantee. Even the film’s production team found themselves agreeing to sponsor the education of the profiled students who failed to gain a scholarship. The Kenyan government has since made the not-so small act by now allowing primary education to be free.

Last year’s Restrepo, a hard-hitting feature-length documentary about the Afghanistan war, showed that we want to do more than simply dig deep into our pockets. Despite the Hansard Society’s recent report that only one in 10 Britons say that they will do some form of voluntary work at some point in the next couple of years, it seems that the so-called ‘do-nothing generation’ actually wants to get in on the act; whether it is in their community or halfway around the globe. Filmmaker Adnan Sarwar, for instance, a former British Army soldier, organised a screening of the film and shared his proceeds with The Soldiers Charity and the local community. ‘Three Military Mums’, as they have aptly called themselves, brought the film to army districts in Surrey and Hampshire, exposing the bitter truth to the troops’ families. Across the pond, fundraising events were held all across the US in aid of war veterans.

One of the pioneers of this movement is Dogwoof film distributor that can boast of three Oscar nominated docs, this year alone – Gasland, Restrepo and Wasteland. They actively recruit ‘Ambassadors’ to hold local screenings of their films, providing exposure to new audiences and raising money for their chosen charity whilst revolutionising the traditional documentary experience. Upcoming venues range from a 18th Century spa hotel in Tunbridge Wells to a dusty Antique shop in Vauxhall, London with related events that aim to embody the spirit of the film being screened.

Food Inc., (2009) which kick-started the theatrical social action movement, is currently enjoying a re-surge in popularity at grassroots level whilst the hotly anticipated Countdown To Zero (theatrical release on 24 Jun), directed by Lucy Walker, is billed as providing the tools for becoming part of the global movement to demand total nuclear disarmament. But it is not only films about social issues that are making the rounds. Last year, a branch of the Women’s Institute raised money for charity by screening vintage adult films starring one of their most famous former members: Post-war pin-up girl Pamela Green, the first woman to appear nude in a British film, in 1960.

This phenomenon could just be the tip of the iceberg; with crowd funding becoming increasingly popular with independent filmmakers, charity crusaders may soon be following in their footsteps, pooling money and resources to get their voice heard. For now, at least, donating time and money to charities need no longer feel like simply pouring guilt down a deep well. Let’s hope this cultural philanthropy remains in fashion for a little longer than the blockbuster season.

Life In A Day is out on theatrical release now and Countdown To Zero on 21 Jun. A Small Act is out on DVD on 20 Jun can be ordered here.

A Small Act Trailer

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website:

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