Reflecting on Impact Talk with Leah Borromeo on The Nightcrawlers: Starting Impact Campaign for Documentary

We kicked off our first-ever Impact Talks session last Thursday, November 11, 2021. The discussion focused on The Nightcrawlers (2019), an unflinching exposé of the Philippines’ war on drugs. We were joined by Leah Borromeo, a seasoned journalist, filmmaker, and impact producer, and Raffy Lerma and Vincent Go, two photojournalists who are protagonists in the film. They reflected on their experience campaigning for the film.

The Nightcrawlers, directed by Alexander A. Mora follows a small group of photojournalists or “nightcrawlers,” revealing the deadly war against the Philippines’ drug epidemic. A battle, some claim, has cost 27,000 lives. Featuring interviews with members of a death squad who partook in the extrajudicial killings of individuals suspected of crimes and drug dealing, viewers are brought back to the streets of Manila in 2016, when the drug war was at its peak. 

Raffy Lerma stated that the film team didn’t think of a big production or an impact distribution at the start. It started as a way to let out the story.

“We simply just wanted this story to be out, to be heard, to be seen, even just in our small community at that time,” Raffy said.

When Leah Borromeo learned that The Nightcrawlers was about exposing the injustices in her home country, she felt a call to join the team as an impact producer.

“I care about the Philippines. That was why when this film entered the editing stage, I joined as an impact producer. I wanted to help the impact distribution process for this film, including building discussions about this issue with the Filipino diaspora and grassroots communities,” 

Below are more lessons from the Impact Talk.

Identify the campaign overview 

Impact distribution is a complex process. Leah underlined the importance of a clear framework of impact planning. Crucial points to be thought about are the objectives, action points, and methodology.

The objectives should be clear. It starts with personal reasons for what filmmakers want to do and achieve with their film. They should also include how the filmmakers plan  to positively impact the people in the film and the people or communities affected by the issues.

“This film can be viewed internationally. The world already knows this extrajudicial crime. This story is out, we actually achieved our first goal. But after that, we keep asking, who actually needs this story the most? Our local community, the Filipinos. Some of them support this war. We want this story to make an impact on them, to change their minds and behaviour, not to support the violent leader in the future. That’s our main goal for now,” Raffy stated.

Other aspects to be included are potential partners and target audiences. Potential partners refer to the people who have the “megaphone” to talk about a particular issue, and in The Nightcrawlers case, these are the people who work in human rights or law issues. 

“Can they (the potential partners) help you to make an impact? Can they influence people to make social change? Targeting at least local and national communities. It is even better if you could target international partners (if necessary),” Leah said.

Target influential people, such as key opinion leaders or changemakers to persuade people to take action or to support a campaign. The approach can be top-down or bottom-up. 

“It’s also very very important to establish a connection with organizations like Amnesty International, for instance or the Committee to Protect Journalists,” she added.

But in this film’s case, engaging first with the communities works better to build more key audiences to come in, including audiences who you think need the change the most.

“There were some pro-Duterte people in the discussion, that just made things a lot more interesting,” Leah said. 

In the end, approaching smaller communities will result in a snowball effect.

“The impact for me was it woke the international scene up to take interest in what happened. Also to the ICC who stepped in and really wanted to investigate the killings. I think this is the biggest thing this documentary has achieved,” said Vincent Go when joining the discussions.

Engage in open communication and maintain the energy

Impact is not one person’s work. It will Involve many people in collaboration, including the protagonists and communities captured in the film. Be transparent, and engage in open communication so that everyone can be on the same page, including in your team.

This film was made with a simple ask from the filmmakers to follow the photojournalists and shoot everything in sight. Raffy admitted that the film team didn’t expect this film would grow big. 

“We didn’t even know that it would be on National Geographic, and have this impact plan at first,” he said. 

Leah added that besides ambitious goals for this film, it is important to maintain the energy of the team. Another thing that was touched upon revolved around the amount of energy needed to pull through. 

“Say it since the first encounter, ‘we’d like you to be on board with us with any kind of contribution with the capacity and energy you have, only if you’re willing.’ Most of the cases in Global South, there’s not enough funds to produce the film, let alone the impact. So as the impact team, we might have to learn it all from scratch, from contacting press to managing screenings,” said Leah.

The impact work includes repetitive work, talks, and other things that might hurl the team back. It is necessary to give breaks to everyone involved, including the team, and the protagonists.

“I was already doing the talks before the film. I think it also took a toll on us, that we do need a break. And doing this kind of talk can actually be a kind of therapy session for me,” Raffy stated. 

From this discussion, we recommend you to take a slow start after the break to first evaluate and revisit things that can be improved, stopped, or changed in the execution. After all, impact distribution is a long marathon.

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