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From Story to Movement: A Master Class with Patrice O'Neill

Patrice O'NeillThis week, the Center for Social Media and AU had the honor of hosting Patrice O'Neill as the final visiting filmmaker for the 12th Annual Human Rights Film Series.

For some background information, here is an excerpt from remarks made by SOC Dean Kirkman at the screening:




"Most documentaries portray individuals: whether victims, perpetrators or heroes. Not In Our Town has all of these characters, but the Not In Our Town series of films has done more. These films portray communities, the dynamic response of communities to hate crimes, the realization of collective responsibility, the process of organizing over years; they tell collective stories.

In 1995, Not In Our Town filmmaker Patrice O’Neill, executive producer of the production company The Working Group, used the first Not In Our Town film to create a network for public knowledge and social mobilization…. not in our town is such a great slogan and the first story of Billings Montana was so compelling that what could have been just another ephemeral public television documentary became a cause and a movement. It grew by providing proven tools and resources that are easily adapted, customized to local needs and conditions.

And, over the years Patrice and her colleagues have built an increasingly strong online platform for people to share their experiences, their lessons learned and to identify and promote best practices. The network has taken on a life of its own and communities across the country have been inspired by what others are doing. The films motivate people to act, viewers are surprised at how much people like them can know and do. The films frame the options for communities and the network and its resources empower them.

Hundreds of national organizations and associations, including churches and cities, librarians and teachers, and media partners have embraced the mission and contributed enormously to the success of the programs and the impact of the resources on the website. For this film, public media stations in more than 20 markets used the documentary as the trigger for community wide discussions in a National Week of Action.

Immigration is the human rights issue in the U.S. today. Politicians and sensationalist media have legitimized a rhetoric of hate, stigmatizing and demonizing Latinos, and it has consequences. NIOT creates a public space, built on human rights values, that is solutions oriented. The deepest motivational springs for social action are located in the human capacity to feel needs on behalf of others. It is in the context of community that we can reflect on what matters and why, can keep ourselves honest, can size up the challenges we face. That’s the stand of Not In Our Town and Patrice O’Neill."

During the day's events, Patrice offered key insight into developing engaging content. Below are a few takeaways from her lecture to AU graduate students:

5 elements that helped NIOT turn into a movement:

  • Foreground Positive Action - The narrative has to be disciplined, yet embedded in positive actions of the town.
  • Highlight Collaborations - Make values visible, and use the collaborations to draw focus to the larger picture.
  • Diverse Characters - Rather than focus on the deeply personal story of one or two individuals, NIOT adds scope by bringing in stories from many of a town's inhabitants. In a sense, the town is the leading character.
  • Discomfort and Challenge - Recognize in the film the issues the town must struggle with on a human level.
  • Accessibility - What is going to make a really difficult topic digestible for a large number of people?

An integral part of the movement's success is O'Neill's multi-platform outreach approach. In addition to the films that are produced, Not In Our Town has a website, NIOT.org, where interested parties can immediately engage with the material, viewing videos and interacting with the content in innovative ways. One example is a map of the U.S. with symbols representing hate crimes that have occurred, as well as community response and forming of local NIOT groups. Visitors can click on these symbols and in many cases immediately connect with video content within the map itself.

O'Neill pointed out that this approach isn't for the film that seeks a festival audience, but rather focuses on encouraging positive action within the community and the country to make the places we live safe from hate.