There’s a branch of filmmaking that has transformed into something that goes far beyond lights, camera, action. It’s called impact storytelling and when it’s done well, it can really pack a punch.
Films are one of the most influential and persuasive mediums for communicating. They trigger our sensory receptions in a way that the written word simply can’t. With film, we are invited into the story – rooting for the main characters when they succeed and cringing as they stumble. We absorb their experiences and embody their emotions as we follow their journey.
But for a film to be impactful it needs to do more than entertain us. It has to introduce us to a pressing social issue, shift our attitudes and stimulate a response. The job of an impact storyteller is to construct narratives around complex issues, to create social movements, to foster positive change and take viewers from passive consumer to active participant.
A few years ago the team at Moonshine Agency produced Little Stars: Accomplishing the Extraordinary in the Face of Serious Illness, an intimate portrait of the experience of living with life-limiting illness. The project comprised a series of short films and a feature documentary that captured the surprisingly uplifting stories of children and young people thriving in the face of adversity.
Little Stars was designed to highlight the importance of children’s palliative care programs by signalling that these services are about life, not end of life care. They also showed how paediatric palliative care supports not just the patient’s physical, social and emotional wellbeing but that of their family as well. As access to these programs unavailable in many parts of the world, particularly low and middle income countries and especially in places of humanitarian crisis. We wanted to message Little Stars with a call to action that would persuade health professionals to lobby their governments to take on children’s palliative care and implement it into hospitals, hospice and in home care settings.
In a culture where we share almost everything but very little about illness or death, we knew that highlighting palliative care stories was needed more than ever. We filmed across seven continents, meeting children and families whose experiences tugged at our humanity in new and unexpected ways. Little Stars was an opportunity to reduce the distance between science and emotion. A platform to unravel hidden truths and shed a light on the families and professionals campaigning tirelessly to make paediatric palliative care more accessible, but whose plight had remained mostly invisible.
The documentary was screened in more than 50 countries, reaching tens of millions of people in dozens of languages. It was also picked up by broadcasters and made available on a number of online platforms including Kanopy. Although the films were released over 6 years ago, they are universal stories that are still searched for online. The Little Stars YouTube channel continues to connect and grow, amassing more than 180,000 views and gaining an average of 2,000 views every month. After a screening of the documentary in Illinois, USA, one hospital volunteer exclaimed, “It touched a corner of my brain that hadn’t been touched.”
The films are still regularly used as a resource for clinical staff too. In 2019 we received an email from the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of Zimbabwe (HOSPAZ), explaining that during a screening of the Little Stars short films, viewers observed how children with life-limiting illnesses in other parts of the world were having different experiences to the young people in their care. Unlike most of their palliative care patients, the children in Little Stars seemed to experience little or no pain at all – and their families were prepared for what was prevailing.
The group was so inspired, they mobilised to lobby key policy and decision makers to be granted permission for nurses to administer pain management services to children. A law has since been passed for these nurses to administer, prescribe and be in possession of morphine for paediatric palliative care.
And this is exactly what impact storytelling is all about: inspiring people to do something meaningful that leads to a positive outcome.
While it’s unlikely that Little Stars was the sole catalyst of the legislation change – we know that data supports and drives the medical profession every day – the series spoke to HOSPAZ in a way that a research paper could never match. It forged new supporters, stoked conversations and moved minds. Most importantly, Little Stars compelled viewers to look beyond the statistics and medical semantics, and see the possibilities palliative care could provide.
Having specialised in impact storytelling for more than a decade, our team has witnessed the full force of film close up. We’ve seen movements forged, policies re-written, knowledge shared and lives transformed. If the past 10 years has taught us anything, it’s that even short films have the rare capacity to expand a viewer’s understanding of what’s possible and create lasting change.
So what’s our parting shot? Never underestimate the impact a film can make.