Lights, Camera, Justice! Reimagining Social Justice Through Screenwriting
November 20–21, 2015
New York University
Screenwriters are in a particularly advantageous position to make a significant contribution to world betterment. The films we write affect large international audiences and by writing movies about social issues we can inspire masses of people to take action that could truly change the world. That’s because all the movies that screenwriters write have a definite effect on mass consciousness. Every 35-foot image projected before an audience influences that audience in some way. . . . Movie images can incite audiences to buy products, dress in specific ways and even go to war. (Becker, 2004)
Each semester, like other professors, I welcome students with different interests and skill levels into my classes.
Some of them enjoy reading . . . but many of them don’t.
A few of them love writing, while others . . . not so much.
However, all of them love contemporary films. And television. And web series. And YouTube. And Vimeo, etc.
Students’ passion for visual stories presents an exceptional opportunity for teachers of all disciplines who want to encourage their students to reflect on social justice and to think critically and creatively.
The key is to help students who are interested in films fall in love with the process of scripting films.
And in my experience, it’s not that difficult. There’s a feeling of collective excitement when a group of people imagine stories for the screen. The good news is anyone can create a short film through writing. All they need is an idea, paper and pen or a computer. (Currently, there are free cell phone screenwriting software applications as well.)
Through screenwriting, students can explore social justice issues that are important to them. But the process can also make topics that seem distant or foreign more relatable and relevant. This is because crafting a story requires writers to combine facts with feelings, analysis with intuition, critical thinking with imagination, and observation with introspection. To create a story for a short film, they will have to “live” that story. And this makes for a rich learning experience.
Writing the “Social Justice” Script
In November of 2014, I heard about the Faculty Resource Network’s plans to celebrate the Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community Symposium. The topic inspired me, and I began to consider more explicit ways to incorporate social justice themes into my screenwriting classroom.
That focus is very much in line with the efforts of our film program at the University of the Sacred Heart. In fact, the University’s mission is “to educate individuals in intellectual liberty and moral conscience who are able to participate in the construction of a more authentically Christian society: a community united in justice and peace.”
As part of the course Introduction to Screenwriting, I designed a unit of study centered on the social justice script. In this section of the course, students learned about a social justice theme of their choice while applying essential screenwriting tools. The result was a short film script.
The unit is divided into four parts, but it may be adapted by teachers according to their priorities, their schedule, and, of course, their students. These are the parts:
PART 1: Discovering Your Topic
First, I invite students to explore their own ideas and experiences regarding social justice. This process includes writing exercises and some research, as well as class discussions. The objectives are to examine the concept of social justice and help students identify their own social justice interests. These are some workshop exercises to help students discover and articulate a topic of their choice:
- Write the word “justice” on top of a page and circle it. Quickly jot down all the words and images that you associate with that concept. Do the same with “social justice” and “social injustice.”
- Write about your own experience with injustice. What was the most memorable incident for you and how did it affect you?
- List the three problems, conflicts, or social issues that you would change if you could. Why are these especially important to you?
- Look for three social justice stories in the press that are compelling to you. Imagine a possible story inspired by them. Discuss your ideas with a classmate.
- Write for six to eight minutes about a social justice topic that intrigues you. Ask yourself what you would like to show and say about it.
PART 2: The Key to the Treasure: Research
Research is an essential ingredient of screenwriting. Robert McKee, the famous screenwriters’ guru, put it this way: “Do research. Feed your talent. Research not only wins the war on cliché, it’s the key to victory over fear and its cousin, depression” (Jones, 2014). These are my suggestions to students:
- Research the topic you’ve chosen through articles, books, and other resources.
- Visit and observe one or more places related to that topic. (If visiting is not possible, research places and images through the Web.) Write down what you learn.
- Interview at least one person that can help you understand your subject matter better. Write down what you learn.
PART 3: Design Your Story
This is a fun part of the process. In order to create the story for their script, students combine their research discoveries with their personal experiences, actively drawing on their imagination. These are some of my suggestions:
- Clarify the premise of your script, the idea you want to convey.
- Determine the three main elements of your story: the protagonist, the world where the story takes place, and the conflict. What makes these elements peculiar and rich?
- Ask yourself, what does your protagonist want or need? What obstacles does your protagonist face?
- Clarify the beginning, the middle, and the end of your story.
- List the scenes of the film.
Once students finish their design, I encourage them to discuss it with their classmates and get some feedback. I also remind them that research is an ongoing part of the screenwriting process, urging them to continue to learn about the topic in order to nurture their creative process.
PART 4: Write & Rewrite. And Rewrite
Let the writing begin! Programs like Celtx, Final Draft, and others facilitate the process of formatting a script. The Web is packed with free screenwriting resources such as scripts and writing and formatting suggestions. If students don’t have access to a screenwriting program, ask them to write their script using Microsoft Word, trying to approximate the format guidelines.
The recommendations for this part are simple:
- Write your script using screenwriting software.
- Use verbs in the present tense.
- Describe what is seen on the screen in a concise way./li>
- Get feedback about your first draft.
- Revise it.
- Share your script with classmates.
- Revise it some more!
As they prepare to share their work with others, I encourage them to write a logline describing their film in one sentence. The logline formula is straightforward: state the genre of the film and identify the protagonist and what happens briefly.
For instance: “Hairy is a drama about a jaded hairdresser who starts tutoring a shy six-year-old boy in her beauty parlor.”
Or “‘No guey‘ is a dark comedy about a Hispanic immigrant who struggles to learn English in Queens.”
Preparing the logline will help students describe their story succinctly. Depending on the time you have available, you may encourage students to read a scene of their script or share the entire script with one classmate. Or you may do a table read together. Some students love to act out their scripts, assigning roles to their classmates. Another possibility is projecting the script on a screen and reading it together as a group.
Ask your students to identify the social justice issue(s) depicted in each script, and what the premise of the film seems to be. What is the lasting impression of the script? Has it inspired them to consider an aspect of social justice they hadn’t thought about before? What is it?
The discussion of the different scripts can generate a productive conversation about writing, social justice, and the power of film to present and influence history.
In my experience, students are sensitive and helpful in the feedback they give their peers, but you may want to discuss some guidelines for the discussion before starting. After all, as Yves Lavandier (2005) states:
A screenplay is not an administrative document but a vulnerable artefact that needs to be handled sensitively. It is the fruit of an artist’s labors, one in which he has invested a part of his soul. This is true even in cases where the resulting work appears terrible. A text and its writer should be approached with the greatest respect.
A Teacher’s Reflections
One of the advantages of this project is learning about the diversity of students’ interests, backgrounds, and experiences. Last year, my students wrote more than 30 scripts, focusing on topics as varied as poverty and unemployment, racial and gender discrimination, xenophobia, domestic violence, environmental issues, mental illness, drug trafficking, children’s rights, low wages and discrimination in the work place, disability, bullying, and political violence. I was happy to see that in addition to dramas, some of them wrote comedies, dark comedies, and thrillers.
I had worried that some students might resent the imposition of “social justice” as a focus for a screenwriting project. But that wasn’t the case. After the unit was over, I asked students to fill out a questionnaire about the experience. Only one student mentioned that initially he resisted the idea of writing a “social justice” script, but he ended up enjoying the research and the topic he chose. (His script was a comedy about a corrupt politician unveiled by a blunt TV journalist.)
My other concern was that students might end up writing heavy-handed scripts with simplistic messages. That wasn’t the case for most of the scripts. In the questionnaire, the students confirmed that they didn’t feel forced to write scripts with positive or moralistic messages. Some said they wanted to present a message of hope, while others wanted to present the reality they discovered through their research.
The students wrote that they appreciated the screenwriting tools they used, especially the interviews. One of my students explored the issue of fair wages in the Island and interviewed a paramedic with 20 years of experience. Another student wrote about homeless children and interviewed a missionary who has volunteered in Latin America. Talking to a woman who suffered domestic abuse deeply moved another of my students.
In the future, I will have students write more extensively about their own experiences with justice and injustice before they choose a topic. Also, I would like to offer them a longer workshop on research and interview techniques. My students also suggested that we take a field trip to communities where some of these issues are ongoing.
Most of the scripts these young screenwriters wrote won’t make it to the screen. For most of them, this was a first experience, an initial step in their creative development. Most likely, by the time they reach the production class, they will have discovered other stories to tell.
But by doing this work, my students acquire new writing skills, reflect creatively on social justice, grow in their understanding of reality, and, hopefully, ponder potential solutions.
The power of stories to transmit information, create identities, and influence people is undeniable. When students themselves become the storytellers about a social justice topic, the learning experience can be memorable.
And that’s what I’d call a happy ending.
Beker, M. (2004). Screenwriting with a conscience: Ethics for screenwriters. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. Publishers.
Beker, M. (2012). The screenwriter activist: Writing social issue movies. New York: Routledge.
Cowgill, L. (2005). Writing short films: Structure and content for screenwriters. New York: Lone Eagle Publishing.
Jones, C. (2014, July 17). Top 16 quotes from Robert McKee for screenwriters, storytellers and filmmakers [Web log post]. Retrieved from www.chrisjonesblog.com/2014/07/screenwriters-storytellers-filmmakers.html
Lavandier, Yves. (2005). Writing drama. Retrieved from www.clown-enfant.com/leclown/eng/drama/livre.htm#LIRE
Limoncelli, R. (2009). Teaching filmmaking: Empowering students through visual storytelling. VDM Verlag.
Shannon, P. (1995). Text, lies, and videotape: Stories about life, literacy, and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
United Nations. (2006). Social justice in an open world: The role of the United Nations. New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Division for Social Policy and Development.