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Story Movements

How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change

Caty Borum Chattoo

Publication Date - 03 September 2020

ISBN: 9780190943424

304 pages
6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

In Stock

Explores the rise of social-issue documentaries, focusing on the tactics and impact of such films as Blackfish, The Invisible War, 13th, and Citizenfour


Only a few years after the 2013 Sundance Film Festival premiere of Blackfish - an independent documentary film that critiqued the treatment of orcas in captivity - visits to SeaWorld declined, major corporate sponsors pulled their support, and performing acts canceled appearances. The steady drumbeat of public criticism, negative media coverage, and unrelenting activism became known as the "Blackfish Effect." In 2016, SeaWorld announced a stunning corporate policy change - the end of its profitable orca shows.

In an evolving networked era, social-issue documentaries like Blackfish are art for civic imagination and social critique. Today's documentaries interrogate topics like sexual assault in the U.S. military (The Invisible War), racial injustice (13th), government surveillance (Citizenfour), and more. Artistic nonfiction films are changing public conversations, influencing media agendas, mobilizing communities, and capturing the attention of policymakers - accessed by expanding audiences in a transforming media marketplace. In Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower People and Inspire Social Change, producer and scholar Caty Borum Chattoo explores how documentaries disrupt dominant cultural narratives through complex, creative, often investigative storytelling. Featuring original interviews with award-winning documentary filmmakers and field leaders, the book reveals the influence and motivations behind the vibrant, eye-opening stories of the contemporary documentary age.


  • Features never-before-published interviews with documentary leaders and award-winning documentary filmmakers
  • Contains original analysis of documentary stories and their functions in democracy
  • Offers lively insider stories about what motivated major documentaries and how they were made

About the Author(s)

Caty Borum Chattoo is Executive Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact and Assistant Professor at the American University School of Communication. She is an award-winning documentary producer, scholar, professor, and strategist working at the intersection of social change communication, documentary, and entertainment storytelling. She is also the co-author, with Lauren Feldman, of A Comedian and An Activist Walk Into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice.


"Those researching and writing about documentary films will find in this book a wealth of information." -- B. Ghilardi, CHOICE

"A pivotal study of the novel understanding of documentary and non-fiction genres in the new millennium." -- Modern Times Review

"Story Movements should be in the toolbox for all the change-maker-minded. Borum Chattoo's command of language, filled with clarity and passion, makes her readers want to pick up the camera, tell their stories, and change the world. This multi-disciplinary book is essential for academics, filmmakers, philanthropists, media distributors and any practitioner, from climatologist to social worker, seeking an understanding of the power that documentaries can wield." -- Journalism

"Combining insightful storytelling with the analytical clarity of academic research, the book makes a compelling argument for documentaries as increasingly important avenues of supporting social change." -- Journal of Public Interest Communications

"Profoundly illuminating." -- Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly

"An engaging volume that should appeal to scholars and practitioners alike." -- International Journal of Communication

"A comprehensive look at the various ways docs have contributed to positive social change in the US." -- International Documentary Association

"Story Movements couldn't be more timely. In the midst of a global pandemic that is revealing systemic social inequities; when nations around the world face economic crisis; and streets fill with protestors, governments spread misinformation, and social media fuels conspiracy theories and racist tropes — we are deeply in need of powerful, trustworthy, extensively researched, nuanced documentaries aiming to set the record straight, shine a light on misdeeds, offer counter-narratives to official stories, and change conversations, spark action and mobilize movements.... an inspiring read for doc filmmakers, enthusiasts and activists." -- Lisa Leeman, Documentary Magazine

"Caty Borum Chattoo's book provides crucial insight into the ripple effect of documentaries that deal with social issues. It is amazing, upon reflection, to see how personal stories have nudged the conscience of the world. A must-read for anyone interested in social change and the relevancy of the documentary form." -- Sheila Nevins, Executive Producer, MTV Documentary Films

"Documentaries have the power to entertain and educate -- and, in the right hands, inspire people to take action on the most pressing issues of our day. The genie is out of the bottle, and we are just beginning to understand the ways nonfiction shapes our cultural and political landscape. Caty Borum Chattoo's examination of the power of documentary is as timely as it is welcome" -- Stanley Nelson, Documentary Director and Founder, Firelight Media

"Story Movements rises above the gloom of cynicism and rage with our media to celebrate the voices in real stories artfully told. Social documentaries draw the contours and complexities of people and issues, and throw open shades drawn against humanity by cynics, charlatans, shouters. Caty Borum Chattoo's beautiful book reminds us that everything changes, except for these authentic stories and their thundering role in democracy." -- Sally Jo Fifer, President and CEO, Independent Television Service

Table of Contents


    Chapter 1: Revealing New Reality: Documentary's Networked Era Arrives
    Chapter 2: Evolving Documentaries and Social Change: Historical Highlights
    Chapter 3: Opening a New Lens: Documentary Functions as Civic Storytelling
    Chapter 4: Activating Community: The Movement Builders
    Chapter 5: Mobilizing for Change: Inside the Blackfish Effect
    Chapter 6: Humanizing the Headlines: Documentary's Interpretive Framing
    Chapter 7: Shaping Laws: Documentaries and Policy Engagement
    Chapter 8: Interrogating Hidden Truths: Investigative Documentary
    Chapter 9: Imagining the Future: Why Documentary Matters

    Appendix A: Interviewees
    Appendix B: Documentary and Social Change Landscape: Profiled Organizations and

    Appendix C: Filmography