Making your research accessible

Driving social change: Turning academic research into film

By 09/03/2017

The last two decades have seen a resurgence of documentary in cinema. By nature, documentaries have the potential to change the world, rather than just redecorate it – and they can be used as a form of artistic expression, as well as a valuable tool for activism. During my MSc in International Development at SOAS, I realised that academics and people in the non-profit sector have a lot in common with documentary filmmakers: they all want to drive change around issues they care about deeply. As a result, I decided to gather a pool of talented filmmakers and launch my very own social enterprise, Chouette Films, a green film production company committed to using film as a tool for social change.

My idea was to combine academic research and educational resources, which would give local people agency, and provide them with a platform to discuss the issues they were facing.  I wanted to show that NGOs, academics, and filmmakers working together could spark innovations and new collaborations – which it did! Ultimately, our documentary led to the local community in the Todgha Valley in Morocco inviting an NGO to pilot a project using new technology, which will potentially revolutionise and ensure water security in the area. So, how did all this come about?

At the time we were a young social business and wanted to jump straight into the deep end, so we started working on an independent film project we had developed completely by ourselves, from the initial idea all the way to distribution. There is no other business, apart from the oil industry or scientific research, that is as unpredictable, risky (and expensive!) as the film industry (Peter Bloore, 2012). But what really drives us, despite all the adversities, is our desire for social change.

Throughout my studies, I have followed closely the work of Prof Hein de Haas of the IMI. His research in Morocco combined my passions – the Arabic language, the natural environment, and migration – so tracing his footsteps felt a natural direction to take. Luckily, my passion quickly rubbed off on my team, and so our first film, Aghbalou – The Source of Water, came into being. The film explores irrigation practices in a small river oasis on the southern slopes of the High Atlas Mountains, in the Todgha Valley in Morocco. The film also introduces the concept of ‘virtual water’ – water used to create the goods and services that we consume and use, which is relevant to all of us today regardless of where we live.

The aim of the project was to turn academic research into an educational resource that would allow people’s voices to be heard, rather than be left to gather dust on library shelves or to vanish in long-forgotten memories. We wanted to prove that filmmakers, academics, and NGOs working together could lead to new collaborations, exciting innovations, and meaningful progress. A grant from the UK Irrigation Association and a crowdfunding campaign brought the project to life.

Working on a project that followed the footsteps of de Haas had many advantages, including the fact that we got access to local farmers easily and earned their trust quickly.

A number of studies have suggested that the key to success is a sustainable, bottom-up approach that emerges from within a community rather than from the outside. Including local communities in the filmmaking process was also a powerful way to enable them to voice their ideas, share their stories, recognise their own strengths, and fuel the desire for change (BRITDOC, 2015). In our case, Prof. Mhamed Mahdane, sociologist at the University of Agadir, who is also a native of the Todgha Valley, said that our film ‘has helped the people of Todgha to realise the richness of the khettara which is unique to Morocco’.

Ultimately, the making of Aghbalou was about empowering the local people and letting them identify the solutions that they felt were most suitable. Through our interviews with local farmers, it became apparent that they needed to tackle the increasing water shortages in the area. Our film posed questions about the future of the region’s agriculture sector, and showcased innovative ideas from around the world, such as the affordable drip-irrigation kits developed by the IDE. After premiering the film in the region, the local farmers wanted to try IDE’s technology. The large-scale, industrial drip-irrigation kits available in Morocco were beyond their budget, and they weren’t suitable for their plots of land, which tend to be small and scattered around. IDE’s drip technology, on the other hand, is aimed at small-scale farmers, and it is affordable and flexible. However, the main issue was that IDE did not operate in Morocco, so we needed to come up with something.

Jennifer MacArthur once said that in order to be an ‘impact producer’ you have to be an activist, a publicist, a fundraiser, and a sociologist, among other things. As a small team, this statement has certainly proven true for us. We might not yet have sparked a worldwide movement with Aghbalou, but the film has brought local farmers to the centre of the discussion and equipped them with alternatives. And hopefully this is the beginning of something bigger, as IDE will run their first pilot project in the area!

Tim Prewitt, the CEO at IDE, commented that ‘how we grow food on this planet, particularly in drylands agriculture, will be increasingly important. We have a hotter, crowded, more populated planet, and as we approach a global population of 8 billion, we need to be as efficient with resources as humanly possible. Seeing farmers in the Maghreb adopt drip irrigation is part of the solution’. And to think this all began with a simple idea for a documentary…

Aghbalou is being used at colleges and universities through our distributors Kanopy Streaming and The Video Project. It has also been screened at academic conferences worldwide and at a number of international film festivals. It is also available to watch or rent on Amazon.



Bloore, P. (2012) The Screenplay Business: Managing Creativity and Script Development in the Film Industry

BRITDOC (2015)

Get 'New Post' e-alerts and follow R2A

Contribute to R2A:
We welcome blogposts, news about jobs, events or funding, and recommendations for great resources about development communications and research uptake.

Topics: , , , , , , ,