Translating research into documentary, and documentary into impact

June 2, 2021
Claire Kroening, University of Alberta human geography alumna and communications professional 

Congress 2021 blog edition 

Documentaries are a tremendous vehicle for academics to communicate their research to the public, popularize their ideas, and make impactful social change. They make knowledge accessible...Rather than let valuable research sit on a shelf, behind a journal paywall, or even locked in an academic vernacular that only a handful of people understand, documentaries translate and deliver evidence to audiences to make a real impact.  

How can you translate your research into documentary format? Panellists from “Show, Don’t Tell: Breaking Bottlenecks Between Evidence and Impact Via Documentary” suggest building two things: 1) relationships with broadcasters, media and producers; and 2) a solid pitch for the story your research tells. 

Click Your Own Adventure Activity: following Tim Fox’s story  

Today’s session featured a “Click Your Own Adventure” video activity, where attendees could click through a series of videos featuring people from different industries talking about the impact of collaborative documentaries.  

Tim Fox, Executive Director of the Fredericton Community Foundation, described the tangible impact that came from a short, evidence-based documentary the foundation put out covering the effectiveness of housing-first strategies in ending homelessness. He explained the film elicited a strong emotional response from viewers that “moved our community action to the next level.” He thinks watching the positive impact housing-first had on people struggling with homelessness was more impactful than reading or hearing numbers and statistics.  

Documentaries can also humanize issues and give people a voice and platform. Those whose lives are being most impacted can share their story and tell audiences how they are being helped by the work of researchers and charities.  

Fox went on to say that documentary storytelling also has implications for securing more funding. Through film, charities and other non-profits can demonstrate to funders the work they do, the community impact they make, and how they use their dollars. 

Where the bottleneck exists  

Right now, charities often don’t think about working with researchers, and not all researchers think about working with charities. So comes the challenge of bringing the two together, where evidence can set the direction for a charity’s mission. 

What Fox would say to researchers: “if you know you have information that can move a cause forward, find that cause and work with them so you and your research can do good. Don't just let your research sit on a shelf.” 

Also, he recommends researchers think about the language they use when they talk to charities about the issues and their research; speak one another’s language, and avoid misunderstanding by avoiding jargon, or too much ‘academic talk.’ 


The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Canada Media Fund (CMF) and DOCTalks collaborated to bring Congress 2021 attendees the Click Your Own Adventure online event “Show, Don’t Tell: Breaking Bottlenecks Between Evidence and Impact Via Documentary.”