Participant Production Films: Taking Action When the Show's Over

Lights, camera, take action! William Shakespeare's notion that "all the world's a stage" is taking on new meaning. Participant Productions, an independent film company responsible for such big screen releases as An Inconvenient Truth, Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, and North Country, is encouraging audiences to become active participants rather than passive observers of the world's political and environmental problems.

By Kellee Jacobs, Anita Krajnc, and Larry Wartel | 2006-10-01 12:00:00

As their name suggests, Participant Productions is making films that inform and provide viewers with means of changing the course of history. As such, a social action campaign is launched upon the release of each of their message movies. In the film credits, audiences are encouraged to visit an offshoot website at where they can learn more about the issue, join campaigns, and join in blog dialogues.

Participant Productions bucks conventional show business by extending the filmmaking process to include grassroots organizing and social change, while maintaining commercial viability and keeping an ear to the ground of contemporary pop culture. They are breaking into the mainstream with remarkable vigor and grit, providing an array of films on such critical issues as climate change; North America's destructive reliance on oil; McCarthyism and the right to political dissent; violence against women; and corporate social responsibility. With sexy Hollywood heartthrobs, big budgets, intelligent style, and good story-telling, these movies appeal to people who would otherwise not glance sideways at a socially progressive film.

Canadian billionaire and eBay founder Jeff Skoll created Participant Productions in January 2004 for the express purpose of producing four to six social change films a year. His vision for change is far-reaching and profound, with the goal of creating a "virtuous cycle: the movie helps the nonprofits; the nonprofits help the movie."1 So far, his company has produced remarkable, critically acclaimed films that have won both Academy awards as well as surprising commercial success. Syriana made $51 million at the box office, Good Night, and Good Luck $32 million, North Country $18 million, and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth $21 million in its first eleven weeks.

A Progressive Film Aesthetic

Ben Dickenson, in his recent book, Hollywood's New Radicalism, argues that since the anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s, left aesthetics in film have shifted from the liberal, individualistic styles of the 1980s and 1990s to forms that emphasize collective action in achieving social change.2 Two movies that best exemplify this are Tim Robbins's The Cradle Will Rock and Ken Loach's Bread and Roses, two films based on true stories of workers organizing and marching together to win their rights. This shift is also demonstrated in the Participant Production film North Country.

North Country's lead character, Josey Aimes, a single mother and steel worker, is alone for most of the film in challenging sexual harassments. The movie is set in a small town Minnesota mine where workers are consumed with struggling to get by and making ends meet. Josey is nonetheless relentless in her pursuit of justice, and her epic strength suggests a liberal, individualistic film aesthetic in which a single hero saves the day.

Where this film ultimately succeeds is its recognition that successful social change requires collective action -- or, as Josey's legal counsel in the film points out, the herd is stronger when it sticks together. In the end, many women and men at the mine stand up in support of a class action suit that would force the company to enact a workplace sexual harassment policy. On the Participant Productions website, actress Charlize Theron says that her hope for the film "is that audiences will understand [Josey], will know her as one of their own and, if necessary, follow her example to speak up whenever they see or experience injustice, even when it is scary or easier to just ignore it."

At the film's conclusion, inspired viewers of North Country are invited to join their social action campaign called "Stand Up," where guidelines are offered on organizing anti-harassment campaigns in the workplace, schools, and marketplace. The website even has a section called: "Calling all men! Stand Up action items just for you." It offers coaching advice in its "Boys into Men" brochure, which recommends that boys be given messages and role models encouraging respect for girls and women in their relationships. With campaigns like these, Participant Productions refuses to allow the film experience to fade when you leave the theatre. Instead, the film's message is followed through on its website with socially informed dialogue and the means to take proactive measures through NGO campaigns.

Teaching Films: 'Show It and Tell It'

The great German playwright Bertolt Brecht famously said, "Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it." Starting in the late 1920s Brecht wrote short "teaching plays" to be performed by students and workers in factories to educate and actively engage citizens in socialist politics. The beauty of Brecht was that he was very direct. By contrast, much of North American media and culture is indirect and values artistry over content and subtlety over being "spoon-fed" on social and political issues.

Most television writers follow the principle "show, don't tell" in believing that, for the sake of artistry, "characters' motivation and what they learn from experience shouldn't be discussed."3

But the cost of this artistry often is the intelligibility of the message. Pro-social entertainment requires the characters to share their thoughts aloud in order for the story to have a moral and emotional impact. Characters in a story need to be self-reflective, exhibit emotional appropriateness in dealing with the other characters, and promote empathy, pity, community, and restorative justice. The quality of a story can be seen to deteriorate when the audience must break empathy with characters; when characters are sharply black and white, good and evil; and when a culture of blame and violence is taken for granted-- as in most action films, which have the effect of encouraging audiences to support war.

For entertainment to promote compassion, peace, and environmental sustainability, narratives have to both "show it and tell it," dramatically showing emotional expression while also reflecting on the underlying moral issues. This advice comes as a great affirmation for activists, who often feel guilty for using a politically incorrect direct approach -- the "you can't hit people over the head with a sledgehammer" maxim.

Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth documentary is the most direct of the Participant Production films, and uses a contemporary Brechtian-style "teaching play" format. In Brecht's 1932 film Kuhle Wampe, a character on a streetcar asks, "Who will change the world?" He answers, "Those who are not happy with the way the world is." Al Gore similarly appeals to audiences to change the world. However, he argues that it will take a concerted effort by everybody, Democrat or Republican, to reverse the global climate change crisis. Gore says that even those who are benefiting must change their actions if we are to avoid impending doom. To illustrate this, he demonstrates with a scale: on one side are bars of gold, and on the other, the planet Earth. He asks: Would we rather have the bars of gold or the entire planet? The answer should be obvious.

Al Gore defines his goal as identifying the obstacles to people's understanding of the scientific evidence of climate change. He had made more than a thousand PowerPoint presentations in cities across the globe before this film was made. He would improve each presentation and "roll away" the obstacles so that he could "communicate this [issue] real clearly," he says. He separates the fact from the fiction on the climate change crisis, taking on the bad science and confusion propagated by the fossil fuel industry and their political sponsors. He says in the film: "When warnings are accurate, make sure the warnings are heard and responded to." As any relevant or compelling filmmaker should, Gore philosophizes with both his live and theatre audiences about the motivations and incentives for individual action and political responses. We have the moral responsibility to act as citizens of the world.

This is the first documentary on the climate crisis to appear in theatres. It shows that you can be poignantly direct, compelling, and entertaining at the same time. The film is visually stunning, thoroughly instructive, and it makes a complex scientific issue perfectly understandable. An Inconvenient Truth is popularizing and making the issue clear without overwhelming audiences. It is inspiring the kind of motivation that can help to reverse the ecological collapse. Al Gore invokes our desire to do something practical in our communities as well as press politicians to act at the international level. The importance of this issue and its relevance to the public begs those who have yet to see the film to make their way to the box office promptly.

Films and Grassroots Organizing

Just as Al Gore went city-to-city and person-to-person to show his presentation, it is possible to replicate his approach by going door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor, and classroom- to-classroom to promote Participant Production films. A small but local example occurred at a Vancouver screening of An Inconvenient Truth, where the theatre set up a permanent table with brochures and a sign-up list to join a local environmental group that addresses climate change through rational urban planning.

Another example is the independent company Tribe of Heart (, which produces nonprofit animal rights films. Their innovative grassroots approach encourages viewers to mail out postcards advertising film screenings. Their website contains a detailed guide to organizing screenings in local communities. Also, there's a daily listserv where scores of volunteers share organizing tips and experiences.

Another question to consider is the relative impact of different entertainment media on social change. Ralph Nader recently said that "A book is far more consequential" than a film.4 Books such as Rachel Carsons's Silent Spring, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and Peter Singer's Animal Liberation are examples of books that launched new phases in the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Given that the films An Inconvenient Truth and Fast Food Nation are based on books of the same titles, it would be beneficial to promote the films and books alongside one another in campaigns that promote social change. For example, Participant Productions has dubbed the film Gandhi into Arabic and organized screenings with local Palestinian and Israeli groups. A mass distribution of an Arabic version of Gandhi's groundbreaking book, An Autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth, could have a lasting impact in the region.

Upcoming Releases...

Participant Productions' fall releases include Fast Food Nation, which is based on Eric Schlosser's best-selling expose on the fast food industry, Luna, the story of Julia "Butterfly" Hill's efforts to save old growth redwood forests in California, and Electric Dreams, which profiles rural kids who do their part by designing electric cars. As new generations become increasingly savvy with communications technology, Participant Productions is pioneering a model that demonstrates how films and the Internet can stimulate social change. Shakespeare mused that "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," and indeed we all do remain players -- but with an extraordinary capacity to make a difference.

Kellee Jacobs is a graduate of Political Studies at Queen's University. Anita Krajnc and Larry Wartel are co-authoring a book on protest art. For survey responses please email


1 Gaby Wood, "Hollywood's New Politics," The Guardian, Sunday January 8, 2006.

2 Ben Dickenson, Hollywood's New Radicalism: War, Globalisation and the Movies from Reagan to George W. Bush (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006).

3 Metta Spencer, Two Aspirins and a Comedy: How Television Can Enhance Health and Society (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006), p. 169.

4 David Carr, "Cascading Inconvenient Truths," New York Times, Jun 19, 2006, p. C1.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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