From Storytelling to Social Change

At a gathering in Bellevue late last year, documentary filmmaker Tim Matsui’s acclaimed “Leaving the Life” project about sex trafficking in the Northwest turned out police detectives, trafficking survivors, social workers, concerned citizens, and even an ex-pimp.

Also in the house: our digital sidekick Harvis.

Harvis is an interactive web app we developed at A Fourth Act to help storytellers integrate authentic community engagement into their creative productions. It works like this: First, audience members point their mobile devices to our mobile web app and self-identify by category (e.g. police officer, survivor, social worker, etc.). Then, once the film begins, participants swipe up when they feel motivated to act and swipe down when they feel helpless, generating digital data that helps guide an analog discussion following the screening.

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We’ve now taken Harvis on the road about a dozen times with several different projects, but Bellevue remains the site of one of our favorite ‘huzzah’ moments, a stirring example of what’s possible when all the perspectives and expertise and emotions in a room are given a vehicle for expression. It started with a chilling scene in the 17-minute video chapter: Lisa, 19 years old and high on heroine, arrives at a Seattle shelter for sexually exploited women, picked up by police only minutes earlier while giving a client oral sex in his car. Viewers learn that she’s been working the streets since 13 years old, stuck in a cycle of sexual exploitation to support her drug addiction.

If the scene offers any silver lining, it’s that Lisa appears to be in good hands. A police officer at the center wraps a fresh robe around her shoulders for warmth and lets her know that she can drop by anytime. “We care about you,” he says. “If you ever had a dream, we’re going to work night and day to help you achieve that dream.”

As all this unfolded on the big screen in Bellevue, the mobile web app captured the audience’s emotional responses in real time. The police officers, we found, weren’t particularly moved. It appeared that for them, the film clip depicted business as usual—a rather ordinary example of officers doing their best to comfort a victim. Not much emotional tug. So not many swipes.

But the mobile web app also revealed another insight, captured in colorful spikes on our interactive data visualization shared with the audience immediately after the screening: The social workers were swiping en masse. In their eyes, the police officers (both of them male) were towering ominously over the female survivor, perpetuating a power imbalance that hinders trust. Using Harvis’s comment submission feature, several of the social workers explained their reactions.

“This whole film snippet just feels so paternalistic,” one wrote. “It is patriarchy that created this whole problem in the first place, where girls and women are seen as helpless victims who need to be saved… These police have so much power and privilege that is not acknowledged.”

Added another: “The police officers need to ASK FOR CONSENT before they touch someone! That scene with the bathrobe was very disturbing.”

At a traditional film screening, these are the types of insights that exist only as passing thoughts—or, at best, as isolated comments in an open mic discussion dominated by the most outspoken voices. We created an app that creates a space where both introverts and extroverts (and everyone in between) are empowered to share an opinion.

It also creates compelling points of entry for the post-screening dialogue. In Bellevue, the social workers’ critical comments sparked a lively conversation about how police can more effectively support survivors of sexual exploitation. The police officers and social workers in attendance both offered their perspectives, allowing mutual understanding to emerge between two communities united by their shared purpose—but often separated by rigid silos in their professional practice.

Beyond Bellevue, one of our long-term goals in our collaboration with Tim Matsui is for the app to act as a training tool for police departments and other community organizations that serve vulnerable populations. The feedback we’ve received so far is heartening. The professional facilitator in Bellevue — initially a tech skeptic—raved about the app’s real-time data visualization and mobile-app feedback. And Tim gave the app a ringing endorsement: “It exposes the differences in opinion and helps create starting points for facilitated discussion,” he told us. “I’m integrating Harvis into my model for audience engagement, and [I’m] turning my movie into a movement.”

We love putting our app in the hands of creative minds who share our vision for connecting storytelling with social change. When the defining metric of success shifts from “awards won” to “ideas generated” and “change inspired,” exciting new opportunities emerge for storytellers.

Imagine, for example, what would be possible if city planners and urban residents came together to watch a stirring documentary about gentrification—and then discussed the possible solutions? Or if a film about criminal justice policy became the seed for an inclusive community conversation featuring the voices of police, prosecutors, community members, advocates, victims, and inmates?

What’s possible is collaborative social action—and not just for communities with a resident documentary filmmaker. We see our app as a tool for book writers, university professors, professional mediators, community organizers, and nonprofit activists—basically anyone aiming to convene conversations that are focused, inclusive and productive.

You can check out our video walk-through of Harvis or drop us a line.

Laura Lo Forti