Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Magic, beasts, dreams and SuperDads: The power of animated storytelling

July 31, 2014

A swirling tornado takes your house away. A rapping teenager battles a dragon. Home buyers see the life of the family who once lived there. A child’s drawings of happy family memories come alive while his dad is forced to stay outside the shelter that won’t accept him.

These are the images animated storytelling can bring to life.

That’s what we discovered when we created new films about an issue pertinent to American audiences – homelessness among families.  But this approach can work for advocacy efforts around the world.

The Problem and the Solution

 More than 20,000 people are homeless on any given night in the state; families comprise almost half of this number.” ~Gates Foundation Washington State Strategy Overview

Homeless families are often invisible. They are “far more likely to be doubled up in the homes of friends, or living in their cars, than to be at a busy intersection asking for help” (Seattle Times).

The Gates Foundation had teamed with Seattle University in 2010 on a landmark project to support journalism about the growing family homelessness crisis. Based on that successful model, the Foundation and SU teamed together again last year to wield another powerful educational and advocacy tool – film. 

“I believe a gripping story joined with engaging visuals can help us relate to each other, understand that no one is immune from change in circumstance, and inspire all of us to take action.” ~Sihanouk Mariona, director, Super Dads

Animation as a powerful tool

Animation has played a vital role in public policy advocacy for decades. In the 1940s, Director Frank Capra, as part of the Office of War Information, was asked to create an animation unit to mobilize the public on behalf of the war effort. He appointed Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) to head the unit of distinguished animators from Warner Bros.  and other top studios. The team created thousands of films during World War II that testified “to a widespread belief in the power of motion pictures to educate and mobilize.” (U.S. National Library of Medicine)

Private Snafu was the lead character of many animated films written by Theodore Geisel, educating about public health issues affecting our military in World War II. "Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike (1944)"

We too wanted to educate and mobilize the public. Our charge was to create a unique, compelling way to visually tell the stories of vulnerable families in crisis, and encourage viewers to take action.  So, we called upon Seattle’s talented independent filmmakers and animation artists.

When we started the film creation process, we quickly saw benefits to the animated approach.

  • Animation gave a layer of anonymity – no single person had to represent homelessness.
  • With that anonymity, families felt comfortable talking about raw and emotional events, which made their personal stories powerful.
  • These animated films are palatable to a wide audience; whole families can watch together.

Even though the films have only been available to the public for a short time, we’re already seeing their positive effects. 

“Compassion and understanding from members of a supportive community can reinforce feelings of dignity and self-worth in families who have lost everything.” ~Neely Goniodsky, Director The Smiths

Releasing the Films: From awareness to action

We hosted a world premiere of all four films at the Seattle International Film Festival in May 2014 to a sold-out crowd. More than 350 people not only watched the films, but participated in a 45-minute post-film discussion with the filmmakers and homelessness family service partners, excellently moderated by local film critic and radio host Tom Tangney. At a post-film party, we worked with Firesteel to host a green screen photo-sharing booth, another way to engage the audience.

Since then, we’ve released the films online on the American Refugees website, where viewers can stream and download them. Already, the films have garnered close to 200,000 views.

“Any of us could be one tragedy away from poverty and homelessness. Walking through the lives of the families that lost their homes had a strong impact on me…how close we all are to homelessness and how important efforts to end homelessness are.” ~Laura Jean Cronin, Director ‘Home For Sale’

What’s more, the films make that important connection between awareness and action, especially when they’re presented via a community screening.  When we give pre- and post-viewing surveys at screenings, viewers tell us that because of the films, they’re more likely to engage in an advocacy activity like writing a letter to their legislator about a specific bill, attending an advocacy event in their community, or even just speaking with friends/family about the subject. 

The best part is that anyone, including you, can host a screening. You can approach it like a book club with friends, integrate it into a family movie night, encourage your friends through social media to watch and give their thoughts, or ask for a discussion centered around these issues at your next faith-community gathering. 

On the American Refugees website, you can:

  • Stream or download all four films,
  • learn more about each of our filmmakers, and
  • print a discussion guide that will show you how to host a successful screening.

Watching a film is just a first step, but it’s an important entry point for people who might never think about these global issues. With your help, we can unleash the full power of film to spotlight the impact of poverty and homelessness on our most vulnerable community members.  

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