‘8 Borders, 8 Days’ – a Q&A about how to make a film with impact

In 2015, Amanda Bailly shadowed a single Syrian mother and her two kids when they fled with smugglers from Beirut to Berlin. The resulting film is celebrates strength in motherhood, and is an immersive experience of one of the greatest human rights crises of our time. The film, 8 Borders, 8 Days, premiered in April to sold-out screenings at the Florida Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival, where it was also awarded a prize as the single film contributing most to the conversation on immigration in the US.

Early this year, Amanda brought on Impact Producer, Marie-Marguerite Sabongui, to figure out how to use this film to help shift the refugee narrative in the US. The two women built a strategy to host screenings in targeted communities to create a spirit of welcoming, mobilize audiences to take concrete action, and motivate decision makers to take a stand in support of refugees.

Their collaboration made a big splash on World Refugee Day. This fall, the team is offering $100 (#IWelcome2017 8borders8days.com/host) off the screening license if purchased before October 10 to encourage groups across the United States to screen the film before the Supreme Court hearings on the so-called Muslim ban, scheduled to begin the second week of October.

The film has been called “raw, emotional,” and “unblinking” (The Stranger) and has already inspired people across Florida, New York State, and Washington State to welcome refugees into their communities.

ÙMatej Povse

Vignette Interactive interviewed Marie and Amanda about their collaboration and the film’s impact so far.

Q: So, Marie, you came into help this film create more of a discussion of refugees in the US. Can you tell us your strategy around hosting screenings? You said you showed the film in communities that were already welcoming refugees. Were there other approaches that you considered?

MM: When I came on board, Amanda was already clear that she wanted people in the United States to experience Sham’s story. Donald Trump had just been elected on an anti-immigration platform, and his campaign was full of anti-refugee rhetoric. It felt urgent for people to understand just who was being impacted by closing borders.

Very early on, we wanted to change the minds of anti-refugee folks. Like: “If they just see how cute Lulu is, and hear how relatable Sham’s fierceness as a mom is, they’d flip sides.” But how do you reach that audience? How do you even get them to come to the theatre? Changing hearts and minds takes time, and it takes modeling and reinforcing.

We knew that for every anti-refugee voice, there were people across the country, ready to welcome newcomers, and looking for avenues to help, especially now. So the strategy quickly became to go to communities across the country that were receiving refugee families. In those spaces we wanted to  model welcoming and work with local groups and refugees to identify real, concrete things that newcomers needed, like paying for internet at home, or friends to carpool with or take their kids to play soccer. The goal became to reinforce humanitarian values in our audience, to mobilize them toward becoming spokespeople and contributors in their towns, and to elevate these positive stories of welcoming in the local media. Through communities across the country the goal was to fight the negative talk with concrete, positive action in order to shift the national narrative, and then scale up from there.

Q: Once you had honed in on this strategy, how did you two start to implement it? Who did you reach out to in these communities?

MM: We started by looking at maps of the US to figure out where to go, given our limited resources. We zeroed in on doing three tours this year in NY State, Florida, and in the Midwest. These are places that have seen the highest influxes of refugees and also have had active debates and pushback against these new arrivals.

We’re working with national organizations to help identify the right local partners and places to screen the film – like Welcoming America, Amnesty International USA, the Women’s March, Books not Bombs, among others. Were also collaborating  with dozens of local groups that are helping newcomers resettle, like Rutland Welcomes and Radiant Hands Tampa. Sometimes we’ll develop a relationship with municipal governments, like the City of Buffalo, which has taken a public stance in support of refugees and used the film to kick off a celebration of immigrants in their city.

We always aim to have a local representative from a resettlement or refugee-support organization, a local refugee, and a local decisionmaker at each event to create space for honest conversation about what the situation is like on the ground, and what more the community can do.

Our very first screening was in Albany, NY in March. We collaborated with a small, local organization called New York for Syrian Refugees and received  a statement of support from Governor Cuomo’s office. State Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and the mayor’s office came out for the event. Sana Mustafa, a young Syrian woman who arrived two years ago and whose family is still stuck in limbo, spoke. The night was electric and we had to add a second screening.

Q: What ways did you promote the film in these communities? Did you use things like targeted social media or physical posters, etc?

MM: We promote screenings via targeted social media ad buys and via digital cross-promotion with local and national partners. We provide our local partners with all the physical stuff they need: flyers, posters, press-releases. We also think about engaging groups and people who don’t directly work on refugee issues but have intersectional interests like women’s groups, civil rights groups, and student leadership groups.

Q: What kind of impact have you been able to quantify, if any?

MM: We’re working with our partner Welcoming America to encourage local governments to declare themselves “Welcoming Cities,” which means passing legislation that will directly protect rights of refugees and immigrants.

Amanda: The anecdotal stories are the most moving. In Clearwater, Florida we held a screening at the Unitarian Universalist Church on the block that has received the highest number of refugees in the state, and the community wanted to know how they could support their refugee neighbors living next door. We connected them with our partners Radiant Hands Tampa and Love Has No Borders to build permanent infrastructure in order to support refugees in the neighborhood. In Albany, people raised their hand to pay rent for a refugee family who was being threatened with eviction, others volunteered to teach English, and a truck driver even offered jobs for six newly-settled refugees at his company.  At every screening, including festivals, we invite a local support organization to recruit volunteers and there is always strong interest from the audience.

MM: We’re also tracking quantifiable metrics like the number of screening requests and downloads of our discussion guide in our target regions. These metrics help us understand how much people are engaging, and that signals how much our message may be resonating. We’re tracking actions taken on our site after screenings as part of our #8ways to Help Refugees Campaign, where we highlight concrete things people can do or donate to newcomers in the country — things like Welcome baskets. Eventually we will do audience surveys to track how people’s opinions may have shifted. But we’re interested in long-term changes, and people taking action. It’s early days to report on those numbers.

Q: Marie, is this similar to other projects you’ve worked on in the past? How did you come to be an Impact Producer?

MM: Yeah, Impact Producing is a new term and an emerging field, but for years I’ve been working in this space, leveraging storytelling to create change. I spent the last few years at a shop in NY called Purpose, a creative consulting agency, and incubator all rolled into one. There I designed campaigns and movement-building strategy on a range of issues from climate change, to education reform, to the Syrian conflict. Central to that work was creating and distributing stories that helped audiences understand and engage on issues.

So when my partner and I moved to Istanbul last year, I decided that I wanted to focus on this toolset to work more directly with filmmakers. There are so many great films being made that sometimes just get aired once and then are shelved — Sham’s story was so timely and important that immediately I decided that I wanted to work with Amanda to make sure that didn’t happen to her film.

Q: Amanda, what made you decide to bring Marie on for this role? Had you worked with someone similar in the past or was this a new kind of partnership for you?

Amanda: I worked in video advocacy at Human Rights Watch for several years before leaving the organization and starting this film, so because of that background, throughout the post-production process I was formulating the impact goals in my mind. But when you’re in the thick of finishing a film, it’s impossible to do any heavy lifting to put together an impact campaign. And if you wait until the film is totally finished, it’s often too late.  

I met Marie serendipitously. Her partner did some pick up shots for the film, and in one of our last exchanges he mentioned that Marie is an impact producer.  Marie and I set up a call right away and I knew she would be fantastic to lead the impact campaign. She had a process, with measurable goals. She was able to narrow a whole slew of ideas into a focused, realistic yet ambitious campaign and communicate it to the right people.  Within weeks we had a strategy document to share, a presence on social media and a plan to move forward.  She also approached the subject of the refugee crisis from a position that was well-informed, thoughtful and respectful, which was really key for me in building a partnership around this film.

Q: Can you talk about World Refugee day and what your strategy was?

MM: On World Refugee Day, we released a 3-minute excerpt of the film on social media and launched our community screening campaign where people across the country could sign up to host a screening. World Refugee Day can be a crowded space for organizations on social media, but we cut through the noise by providing smaller organizations in targeted regions with strong social media content, and a clear call to action. We seeded video shares and a few screening sign ups via our partners, and we reached way beyond our goals. Now we’ve got dozens of screenings scheduled to happen across the country – especially where it’ll help the conversation most.

Amanda: We also did a flagship screening in Rutland, VT. This is a place that made national headlines last year when the incumbent mayor lost the election because he said he wanted to welcome refugees. We partnered with Amnesty International USA, Rutland Welcomes, and with Chris Louras, the former mayor.

Rutland was about to receive several families, so the discussion was lively and very future focused. More than 500 people showed up, and we were able to help Rutland Welcomes mobilize more resources to welcome the families. We also invited Sana Mustafa, a refugee advocate who was resettled from Syria, to speak, which really resonated with the audience.  Afterwards we had several members of the Council of Aldermen approach us to tell us how this event affected them and tell us their ideas for how to make refugees feel welcomed in Rutland.

Q: How are you getting the word out about the discount on the screenings? Have you seen a lot of people or organizations that are going to show the film as a result?

Yes! We’ve seen a big boost in community sign ups since we announced the discount on the screening license (#IWelcome2017 as a code when purchasing a license from our partners at Tugg). We’re reaching out to educational audiences now. We’ve recruited college students to help us reach out to campus groups in the Midwest, and we’re working with Books not Bombs and Amnesty International USA to reach their campus chapters.

We’ve also joined forces with Welcoming America to encourage groups and municipalities to host a screening for Welcoming Week (September 15-24).

Q: After October 10th, what are your plans for the film? Are you going to change course at all?

We’ve got an exciting partnership just kicking off with Ben & Jerry’s and IRC to do grassroots screenings in Europe as part of their “Together for Refugees” campaign, and are starting to think about what’s next in terms of reaching beyond the U.S. Lots more to do.

By Tara Todras-Whitehill

Tara worked as a staff photographer for the Associated Press for four years in the Middle East, covering the uprisings, revolutions and numerous elections in the Arab world. Her photography has been featured in the New York Times, National Geographic and Washington Post, among many others. She also works on personal projects focused on women's issues. Her passion is trying to portray strong women changing their lives and the world around them.

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