Making the most of video for human rights: some practical tips

Video can be a very powerful tool for change, and cheaper and simpler technology means that creating video is far more accessible. Here are some tips on making sure that the video you produce has the greatest impact.
Making the most of video for human rights: some practical tips Denise McDermott, WITNESS Video can be a very powerful tool for change, and cheaper and simpler technology means that creating video is far more accessible. Here are some tips on making sure that the video you produce has the greatest impact.

Most of us don't have time to read through 25-page reports, so video is an accessible gateway to a common global understanding.

As eCampaigners we all know that video alone cannot "win" your campaign, but it can take it to another level, whether it is intended for a broad audience, or a few key decision-makers.

Transforming a campaign

At WITNESS we have trained groups around the world on how to use video to further campaign goals. The Foundation for Human Rights and Democracy in Liberia, for example, found that using video allowed them to move their campaign on dramatically, from trying to prove that sexual abuse was occurring in schools to calling for changes to stop the abuse.

As Joe Aloysius Toe, a participant of WITNESS' Video Advocacy Institute writes:

"We wrote a report that documented [the sexual abuse in schools]. But in Liberia, the government will always try to deny or baffle the issue. We thought it wise to add a human face by doing a video documentary...

Our video was shown on World Human Rights Day and on National TV. A lot of people are talking about it, and now it is generating national debate. Girls were able to explain their situation. Now we hope that policymakers will give it some attention."

The video produced provided the stories and evidence that the abuse existed. now the Foundation can focus on campaigning for the solutions, a huge step forward.

What are you trying to produce?

Assuming you have the equipment, software, editing capability, and technical expertise you need, make sure you're clear what your end result should be. The message should be clear, have a human element and appeal to its target audience. Your final product should:

  1. Tell the full story: The video, if distributed online or out in the field, should provide the full context of the campaign and have an 'ask'. Is there a particular policy you are trying to change? Is there a law that exists but is not being properly implemented? Ask yourself if someone happened upon the video outside the context of your own website or training session, would it stand on its own?
  2. Be, or include, one strong video from the point of view of those affected. "Talking point" or "iProtest" videos often seem emotionally detached from the issue and lack detailed information.
  3. Be emotional, but not too much. You're aiming for solidarity not sympathy.
  4. Have a direct ask. Whether it's a policy, law or a mobilizing tool, the video should be clear about what you are trying to achieve.

Planning: production and content

Taking the time to plan your production schedule and content will save valuable time and money, and help bring important nuances to the surface. Planning will also provide room to include the people and voices that are most integral to reaching your goal, and you can prepare for backlashes that might occur. You will also avoid cultural faux pas by allowing enough time to consult with the people affected and find language translators and a post-production team who are sensitive to the local culture.

What is your goal?

Before you jump into filming it is very important to start with this basic question to unveil some not-so-obvious choices and decisions that need to be made. Start with: are we trying to raise awareness, mobilize or influence key decision makers?

Making the most of Video: Monks Image
Monks protesting in Burma, taken from a protest video uploaded to the WITNESS Hub for human rights by an anonymous user.

This first step will help shape the video content, your research, the footage you use and the distribution plan. For example, a video for a general audience would be introductory and more emotive than a video being screened for a few key decision makers at the United nations. Starting with these basic questions will steer the content in directions you may not have expected, illuminating additional research that may need to be done, and help identify spokespeople.

Your goal will also affect the distribution and cost of production. A single screening at the Un or in your community may only require a high compression flash file. For a more widely distributed film, you may need several formats, so make sure you have a high resolution, broadcast-quality digital original to create dubs, and compress to different formats.

Do your research

Is there footage already available that can be integrated into the video? Are you looking to tell a story or provide evidence? What other videos have already been made about this topic? Was there something missing that your video could add to the debate? Is your video an update from a previous campaign?


Know the audience and identify appropriate spokespeople. Whether you are targeting college youth or industry leaders, the tone of the video should be suitable for that audience. An industry leader would just want the facts, whereas with a college audience you may want to create emotional tension. Here are a few things to consider in creating tone: Who will be the primary spokeperson? Will it be a campaigner? Or will it be a person who has suffered due to some injustice? Do you need a scientist or specialist to articulate some of the more difficult concepts? Are those directly affected open and willing to speak about their experiences, and is it safe for them to do so on camera? These decisions should be made well before you pick up the camera so you can direct the production team and those in front of the camera appropriately.


Who else might be an asset to your video? Are there any committee members, report writers, journalists, other groups that have credibility and can go on camera? Would their involvement help or hurt your cause? Are speakers controversial in their field or are their ideas generally accepted?

Develop outline/timeline and shot list

Once you have answered these questions, then develop an outline/timeline and a shot list. Gathering footage can be expensive and time-consuming. Being prepared with an outline and shot list will help cut down on the time you have to spend filming, editing, re-filming and re-editing.

Produce a schedule and circulate

Making the most of Video: Woman with Video Image
US Human Right Network (USHRN) activist at a WITNESS video advocacy training in New Orleans. Copyright: WITNESS 2007

Have each shooting day planned out so that the team, including spokespeople, can prepare accordingly. You do not want people reading talking points minutes before the shoot. They should have ample opportunity to develop a natural composure when being filmed. nervousness and insincerity comes from lack of preparation. Shooters will also need to test lighting and choose the best area to film.

Release forms and security

Be sure that all persons are aware of the film's purpose and understand how it will be used and where it will appear. Ask they sign release forms (pro formas are widely available online), and keep careful files. Be careful there aren't people included in the background that might not want to be included/or are at risk if they are included.

Creating compelling, effective videos is a process, and paying close attention to everyday detail is important in maintaining your credibility on an issue. It is a very effective way to convey a message, and you want to be sure that message is delivered with integrity and credibility. Simple slip-ups can distract from the message, and do the complete opposite of what you'd intended. So take your time. Plan. edit. Get opinions from peers. edit again.

Video advocacy resources

There are plenty of online materials and case studies on the WITneSS website. Please check out these links for help on technical issues and more indepth essays on video advocacy.

The WITNESS Hub for human rights has video and PDF resources.

Human Rights Video Project's "Moving Pictures, Moving Mountains: A Primer on Using Video on Advocacy Campaigns"

Denise McDermott is Online Outreach Coordinator for WITNESS.

by Denis McDermott, WITNESS published Sep 15, 2008,
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