Open City Documentary Festival

Insights: Ed Owles on Impact and Engagement


In September we had the world premiere of our film H is for Harry at Open City Documentary Festival. The film tells the story of a boy called Harry who begins secondary school unable to read or write and his struggle to catch up with his classmates. Stylistically, the film is observational and character-led, focusing particularly on Harry’s relationship with his teacher Sophie, and his dad Grant, who is also illiterate. Like many documentaries, we wanted to tell the small, local story as a way of referencing broader themes, in this case social mobility, literacy and the inequality of the UK’s educational provision. 

It was always our intention to combine festival screenings with a broader impact campaign around the film to raise awareness, provoke debate and function as a ‘call to action’. Our premiere was a great springboard for that next stage. Alongside the regular filmmaking audience, we invited journalists and influential figures in the world of education who could raise the film’s profile. For example, following the publication of an article on Harry in The Sunday Times by a correspondent who came to watch the film, there was a debate in the letters page of the newspaper over a few weeks which then led to other mainstream media interest ahead of our theatrical screening early next month.

Getting the right people in the room didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of relationships we had been cultivating since relatively early on in the production process, including several test screenings. By forming strategic alliances with relevant organisations who might find the film a useful tool for their work – from national ones like ‘Teach First’ and ‘Save the Children’ to more localised literacy campaigns, we had a wide network of people to work with once the film was finished. Making these partnerships early also helped us to raise finance to finish the film because we were taken more seriously by investors who wanted to make sure the film had a high profile. For example, the series of short spin-off films about early intervention we made for Save the Children gave us greater credibility. 

Since Open City we have started to screen at other festivals and make sales to broadcasters, as well as linking up with Dartmouth Films on a ‘host your own screening’ platform. Screenings already organised range from an awareness-raising event at a university education department, a launchpad of a policy debate at the Institute of Education, a fundraiser for a local literacy charity and a showing in Parliament. One of the most rewarding recent screenings was with the local charity Learn2Love2Read. Their work very closely aligns with one of the core ‘messages’ of the film about early intervention with under-fives who need a boost in literacy skills. The charity invited all sorts of local stakeholders, raising money off the ticket sales as well as putting us in touch with more people who might be useful for the impact campaign.

Overall, we hope our film can have impact in three ways. Firstly, we believe that good policy and progress is dependent upon empathy, so by bringing a human story – and crucially a child’s perspective – to the debate we hope to have some small effect on opinions of policy makers and professionals in the field. Secondly, we want charities to be able to use the film in whichever way is most useful to them – whether that be raising money or lobbying for change. Each organisation will have their own focus (e.g. literacy, early intervention, SEN, social mobility more widely) and intentionally we’ve made a complex, nuanced story so it can suit a diverse range of audiences. And thirdly, there’s a number of practical suggestions on our website on what can be done on both a systemic and an individual level. They range from volunteering to becoming a teacher.

The final things I would say about running an impact campaign are that you can’t do it on your own – it has only been possible because of enormous amounts of work behind the scenes by our production team Jon and Isla. And also that from the experience I’ve had over the years working in socially engaged film – it’s definitely more of ‘a drop in the pond’ than a ‘drop in the ocean’ – on its own film can’t change the world but it can definitely open up a space for change to happen.

H is for Harry will be launched on World Book Day, 7th March, at the Curzon Soho. To buy tickets or for further information on upcoming screenings, see the website.