Creating a Culture of Change: Telling the Stories of Reform


During this panel, three filmmakers discussed the role of culture and narrative in shaping views and influencing criminal justice reform. Scott Budnick, who produced The Hangover series before founding the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, argued that films can influence public opinion as well as public policy by deliberately crafting a story and characters that are sympathetic. He explained that documentaries are best for this advocacy, because they can combine narrative storytelling with facts and data.

For Daniel Chalfen, co-founder of Naked Edge Films, cinema, television, and other modes of storytelling can all have a large impact on criminal justice reforms by reaching a wide array of audiences. He suggested that filmmakers should try to reach the audience they want to influence instead of an audience that already agrees with them. Chalfen also cautioned filmmakers against creating films that speak solely to audiences on the East or West Coast, saying that films should resonate with audiences across the country.

For Scott Christopherson, director of the documentary Peace Officer, an equally important group is the people filmmakers are portraying. Because Peace Officer critiques police militarization, Christopherson wanted to honestly portray police officers and shed light on the challenges they face. Christopherson explained that while some of his subjects were unhappy with his portrayal of them, he did make a significant effort to tell their portions of the story with sympathy and integrity.

While the filmmakers pointed out challenges to crafting sympathetic narratives and characters that aid criminal justice reform, they also noted a few areas for solutions and support. First, Budnick mentioned the lack of funding for documentaries and how this leads to a disparity in how they are marketed compared to major studio releases. Larger budgets for marketing, he argued, would help these films reach wider audiences. Additionally, Chalfen explained that advocates for reform should bring criminal justice issues to writers and producers so that they can be worked into story lines for film and television, rather than having to be the main focus.

Learn more about how the Charles Koch Foundation supports criminal justice reform and submit your proposal by visiting the Request for Proposals page.

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