Social Impact Through Web Documentaries – Case-Study

I love EthiopiaIn this week’s blog on the topic of interactive documentaries, guest editor Paulina Tervo looks at how web documentaries can be used to make social impact using her own web documentary as a case-study…

“In my third and final blog post in this series I will look at how web documentaries can be used to make social impact. Using my own web documentary project as a case-study, I am going to put forward some of the ideas that my team and I have developed on audience participation and the strategies for social change. I welcome your feedback on this via my Twitter account @PaulinaTervo. 

Years ago, when I was studying documentary filmmaking, I remember watching many beautiful, powerful documentaries and being left with a feeling of either outrage or inspiration. But this was before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any of the social media networks, and there were few options for the audience to easily get involved with the issue in the documentary. I remember thinking that it would be so great if there was a way the audience could harness this inspiration or disbelief and do something.

Nine years later we are well on our way towards reaching that goal. Organisations such as The Fledgling Fund, Britdoc, BAVC, TFI New Media Fund, The Ford Foundation, The Bertha Foundation and many more are supporting documentary filmmakers to do exactly this. Most projects start as a traditional feature film and then use creative techniques to engage their audience online or through live events. But we are increasingly seeing projects that are using the internet as their primary platform for storytelling, engaging their audience and achieving social impact – all in one.

In March 2010, my production company (Write This Down) premiered a short documentary about Awra Amba – a unique, self-help village based on egalitarian values, that I had been following since 2004. It was founded 40 years ago by a young farmer in the poorest, most conservative part of Northern Ethiopia. Today, their village has become a model for sustainable development across the country and beyond.

At screenings, the film prompted a lot of discussion around the issues portrayed (including questions around gender, religion, and the role of aid). Meanwhile, the Awra Amba village was receiving thousands of visitors every year, over half coming from abroad. They wanted to find a way to keep in touch with their guests as well as connect with those who couldn’t travel there. During this time, I was experimenting with non-linear storytelling and web tools, having been inspired by Kat Cizek from the NFB and Alexandre Brachet from Upian.

As a result, we decided to start a project that would combine the experience of visiting the Awra Amba village with the ability to easily discuss some of the most critical global issues with other viewers and with the Awra Amba community. We also wanted to see if all this could have some kind of real social impact, not only in Awra Amba but in other rural communities.

It may sound complex, but it is actually a simple user journey:


The user can visit the village online on their own computer or tablet. Starting on an interactive interface, (see below), the user will find 10 clickable huts.

village square

By entering into a hut, users can discover the life inside in 360 degree view and click on various highlighted objects and people to explore their stories.


Each of the 10 huts contains at least one short documentary, told through one or several of the villagers about a particular topic. Other highlighted objects inside the hut provide further context to the issue and interesting facts about Awra Amba. Let’s take the weaving workshop as an example.


In the weaving workshop there are three tags; Merkab, a female weaver, who represents equality at work. By clicking on her, you can watch a documentary about gender equality. Behind Merkab, a highlighted spindle opens up a story about the weaving business. Through a male weaver, on the other side of the room (not seen in the picture), the user can enter the online shop, where Awra Amba’s textiles are sold.


Having explored the 360° experience and the 10 films, we invite the audience to take part in a 10-week discussion. As I mentioned, each film represents a particular issue, and functions as a catalyst for the discussion. We will share our content with our media, educational and NGO partners, and promote one theme every week. In that week we also invite prominent opinion leaders on the particular issue being discussed that week, to lead the discussion. The idea is to come up with new solutions to shared global problems, that may for instance include the gender pay-gap, or the issue of elderly care, among others.

We made a short trailer to try and explain this part of the project, which you can view here.

Inspired by the weaving tradition in Awra Amba (which also is their main livelihood), we are going to visualise the discussion. Everyone who contributes will be part of a collective weaving project that will result in an interactive scarf. But this scarf is something completely unique. It will change colour when we change the theme and after 10 weeks it will have grown into a pattern, depending on how much discussion happened. The final scarf will be called moral fabric. The pattern will be woven into a real scarf by the community. It will be available to buy from our online shop, along with a collection of other fair trade products made in the village.


The online scarf will stay online and can be explored at any time, used by educators or researchers or even as an installation in a gallery.

Awra Amba’s spirit is resourceful and entrepreneurial. They have built schools and clinics on their land which serve thousands of other villagers from the area, who would otherwise have no access to education or health services. Having seen and heard about their philosophy on gender equality and social justice, many people around the world wanted to help them. After long discussions with the community about how we could facilitate this, we felt that the right way to support them would be through a social enterprise. This means that a considerable share of the profits from the textile business will go towards development projects set out by the Awra Amba community. They have proven themselves as change-makers for over 40 years. With the increasingly tight Government control on NGOs work in Ethiopia, local entrepreneurs and change-makers are very much needed in order to tackle poverty and further development.

with zumra's family

We believe that by telling this story and opening up a global debate, we will be one step closer to changing the world. Our big dream is that the discussion can be cross-language and allow people to connect, who would otherwise never be able to talk to each other, due to language / geographical / cultural barriers. Awra Amba believes that conversation is key to happiness. And we can’t agree more.

Our project has been in production since 2011, but is not yet complete. We know that it is something very ambitious and experimental, that most of us are doing for the first time – but we hope to achieve our goal this year, in 2013.

We are currently running a crowd-funding campaign in Finland, in order to raise funds for the post-production of the films and the website. You can check it out here.”

By Paulina Tervo for Doc Next Network

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