The power of video advocacy

István Gábor Takács coordinates a very successful video advocacy program run by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) In addition to the HCLU site, have a look at the organisation’s drug policy site, Drug Reporter). The program has been running since 2007, and in that time, the team has produced a vast range of short advocacy videos, that have had huge impact. I interviewed Takács about his work…

When did you first start using video for advocacy?

We started in 2006, when Balázs Dénes, our executive director, bought a camera. He had this idea in his mind for quite a long time, so when he went to the Drug Policy Alliance conference in the US, he took a cameraman with him. They produced a film about LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), that became quite successful.

At that time I was working at HCLU in the drug policy program. I was doing a media monitoring project in drug policy related issues. At that time I was also working at a needle exchange in Budapest – so I was involved in harm reduction.

We started to do video interviews with my colleague Péter Sárosi, who is the head of HCLU’s drug policy program. We still make most of our films together. Peter is the reporter and director of the films, I am also co-directing, handling the camera and doing the editing. When we had the camera in 2007, we went to conferences, took the camera with us and started to do video interviews. But at that time we didn’t know how to do editing, so we uploaded a few clips just exported straight from the camera — some of which still got quite a lot of views.

In 2007 I attended the first Witness Video Advocacy Institute. There I learned basic principles of video advocacy, how to film and how to edit. It was really very useful for me. I really wanted to work with this and it really sped up the process of learning.

I came back and we started to do more and more video. It turned out to be so useful that I slowly shifted and now only focus on video advocacy.

You seem to produce a huge volume of videos — 70 in 2009 alone! How do you manage this?

We have produced more than 200 videos so far. Well one main reason is that I work full time on this, I have the time to deal with it. On other hand, when we go to conferences, we cover a range of different stories. Once we do an interview with someone we ask about different issues, so we can cover 4-5 topics from a single conference. Also, we often produce very short pieces, 2-3 minutes long. We also record whole speeches at conferences. That doesn’t require that much time.

How do you ensure your videos are focused and clear in their content and messages – because that seems to be a challenge facing most people – they want to put everything into one short video?

It’s a learning process and we also started with a lot of mistakes, but it doesn’t matter.  It starts with the planning phase. The main point is that you are doing advocacy and not documentary. So you have a really clearly set goal, and you focus on that.

Usually we have some sort of argument — for example, an argument that safer injection sites work. We then ask conference participants and speakers about this issue. To an extent, we ask questions until we get the answers in the format that we are looking for. It’s not distortion because we’re all working for the same goal. We don’t change what people say. Basically, we just help the interviewees get across their point of view as well as they can.

What is also really important is that both Peter and I work together on about 95% of the films we do. And we are both experts in the drug policy and harm reduction field. We’ve both written articles and book chapters on the topic and we’ve worked in the field for years and years. We know what the issues are, and what the important questions are.

But we always approach our films from the mindset of the general population who may never have heard of the issues. We try to avoid jargon and make the message as simple as possible so that it’s digestible for the people. We’re not producing the videos for other experts, but for everyday people.

Do you do a lot of planning before each video – working out your messages, deciding on your audiences?

The planning is mostly on figuring out what events we can attend — which conferences. We like going to conferences, because there we can get hold of a wide range of drug experts all in one place.

Other than that, we also look at what the hot topics of the day are, or topics we have not yet covered, and want to show.

The other part of the work we do within the framework of the European Drug Policy Initiative (EDPI) that HCLU is coordinating. This initiative is to get together some European countries and fight for common goals and change in drug policy. Among things like common actions, researches or polls, we are helping colleagues from these countries with video advocacy on their own issues.

For example in Sweden we helped to fight for a needle exchange in the capital city – as they still don’t have it, despite the 90% hepatitis prevalence among injecting drug users there. Or in Denmark, we showed the good developments in heroin prescription programs. In the Netherlands, we made a film about the problems of drug tourists in Dutch border towns.

Within the EDPI we work together with other activists to figure out what would be best for them and for the international audiences also. So the aim is two-fold — to help them in their national advocacy, but also to show internationally the differences and the experiences with different drug policies, the problems with punitive drug policies and the benefits of helping people and respecting people’s rights.

We don’t over plan. We improvise quite a lot. We figure out what we want to film about, and then we discuss what kinds of questions should be posed. We don’t really specify a lot. It depends on the situation. We often encounter situations that we were not expecting and things go in a completely different direction.

For example, in March 2010 we went to a conference in Vienna to film at a meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND). We were filming about certain issues, but they were not that very exciting. Then all of a sudden, because we were registered as press, the Russian delegation invited us to participate in their press conference. We went into a small room with the head of the Russian anti drugs agency, Viktor Ivanov, along with Antonio-Maria Costa (director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime – UNODC) and a few journalists. We took this chance to pose inconvenient questions to Ivanov about the lack of methadone treatment in Russia, that is a very burning issue.

So all of a sudden we were focusing on these issues and not what we had been filming the day before. For example, Ivanov said that methadone treatment had been a failure in Baltic countries. So then we went out and interviewed experts from those countries who said that it was not a failure.

Ivanov had also said that methadone treatment was not prohibited in Russia, it was just not supported. This was completely different from previous positions the Russians had taken. We then got reactions from Costa and others. We also got a comment from Michel Sidibé, the head of UNAids, who said it’s really a human rights violation to deny people needle exchanges and methadone. So we put all this together in the film and we’re trying to use it as an advocacy tool.

There have been many, many occasions where we’ve had to improvise.  It’s also a matter of luck.

I wouldn’t over-plan. The most important planning part for us is to find the right people. Once we’ve found them, the other stuff falls into place.

Do you have a few tips for people on how to make their videos effective?

The most important thing is to make it short and simple. Most people won’t watch long films – besides some friends and family members. This is from the perspective of making free online videos that rely on people’s willingness to watch them. I’m not talking about feature films made for festivals and for profit. That’s a different situation.

We get a lot of comments showing that people outside harm reduction circles do watch the films and that it influences their perspectives.

Avoid jargon — stay away from elitist language.

Try to use humour. We do that a lot. For example, when we were filming at the CND, we recorded a sleeping delegate — while she was sleeping, speakers were droning on about the need to keep up the war on drugs. It can be entertaining while informing people.

Try not to be boring with too many dull talking heads. Use B rolls (additional sequences showing context) and cutaways. Try to make it dynamic, using music.

But the first and most important thing is the content. Once you have that, then you can try to make it more attractive.

It’s important to find a personal story. The stories of the people you are talking about. It’s an important slogan of INPUD (International Network of People Who Use Drugs): ‘nothing about us, without us’. Reflect the personal stories of drug users if you’re making a film on drug users, and so on. It’s important, so that viewers don’t just see advocates, lobbyists and experts, but people they can identify with.

For example, when I went to Georgia to help an NGO there with a film, we interviewed a father whose son was in prison thanks to that country’s policy of random drug testing on the streets. The son was the only breadwinner, so the family, refugees from Abkhazia, were really suffering. This helped get across the negative impact of existing drug policies (

How do you disseminate your videos?

Once the video is done we write a comment and upload them onto YouTube and then embed them from YouTube onto the Drug Reporter website, and HCLU’s other websites. We then distribute those page links via our colleagues and associates. We use our page on Facebook a lot.

YouTube only takes films up to 10 minutes long. For anything longer than that, we use Vimeo. It offers good quality and videos can be longer but it has fewer viewers than Youtube.

We also try to get films into blogs and specific websites. For example many of our films are on the website This is a very popular site with lots of viewers. They don’t always pick up our videos thought and its not always predictable which videos will get the most views and links.

How do you assess the impact of your videos?

The first way to see if they are being used, is the counts of views on YouTube. From that we know that our videos have been watched by several thousand people (some more than others), and people have also posted many comments.

Whether the videos have actually changed anything, is harder to know. But we do have some examples of situations where it seems our films have contributed to concrete change.

One of the most important of these came from a visit to an AIDS conference in Moscow. The situation in Russia is that they don’t have methadone treatment, but there are harm reduction and AIDS prevention programs such as needle exchange programs (NSP). There are some 70 NSPs according to my knowledge. But the needle exchanges are funded by the Global Fund — there’s no Russian government money.

The Global Fund held a review and decided that Russia was wealthy enough to deal with its own problems, so the Fund planned to pull out. The Russian government promised to keep the funding going, but later equivocated on funding harm reduction. At the Russian AIDS conference in October 2009 a lot of NGOs from the harm reduction field attended and asked the government whether it would be funding them. It became clear they would not be getting any support. The NGOs then turned to the Global Fund and asked it to extend its support for a further two years.

We filmed all of this, and put our film together two days after the conference. A petition was set up to collect signatures. We joined the NGO campaign to appeal to the Global Fund. The NGOs showed our film to many of those in decision-making positions, and these organizations have told us our video was a big help. The Global Fund granted the extension.

Another big example is a film of ours called The Silenced NGO Partner. This has been viewed about 90 000 to 100 000 times (57000 on our own channel and the same amount on simultaneous uploads by others). Antonio-Maria Costa was in a discussion with NGOs at a UN drug gathering in Vienna, and we were there, filming. He said he needed outspoken NGO partners. Frederick Polak, a psychiatrist from Netherlands stood up and posed a question to Costa: how did he explain the fact that even though in the Netherlands one can buy cannabis legally over the age 18, levels of cannabis use are lower than or equal to, countries where cannabis use is prohibited. For example in the UK or the USA, cannabis usage is much higher than in the Netherlands. Costa shouted at Polak — and silenced him — at one point a security guard was hovering around, as if he was ready to throw Polak out. Costa just didn’t answer the question.

We put the film of all of this up on our websites and asked people to email Costa and ask him the same question. He got so many letters, he made a trip to the Netherlands to visit a coffee shop and a safer injection site. Then he wrote a blog about it. His claims can still be disputed, but at least he checked on the issue.

Since then, we have followed those two (Costa and Polak) at other conferences. During his visit, Costa promised to publish a discussion paper on his visit but it never was published. We wanted to keep pushing the issue, and so we built a website called Dare to Act. On that site, you can see Polak speak out of the screen, directly addressing the viewer. He explains the issue and asks viewers to send letters to Costa and ask for the discussion paper. That site got tens of thousands of views a day. It is still eliciting four or five emails a week from people asking Costa about the discussion paper. At CND last year (2009) there was a further confrontation between Costa and Polak, and again, we made a film about it (

Those videos show very clearly that there is no science behind current drug policy, and no real discussion — just political agendas that are driving present policies.

Generally, because of all our filming at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), the CND has become much more visible – now many people know what it actually is. We also tried to amplify the NGO voice there, as there are many great advocates trying to affect the system – but they were not shown to the public before.

We also made a film in cooperation with the Swedish drug users union. The video looked at why there was no needle exchange in Stockholm, despite there being large numbers of drug users. Subsequently a decision was made to open a needle exchange in Stockholm. We can’t say it’s directly the result of our film, but we like to think it contributed.

Lastly, we constantly get positive and constructive feedback from harm reduction and drug policy reform advocates, that our films inspire others to make their own advocacy videos. We also got feedback that because of a film that advocated for methadone in Russia, more Russian people felt motivated to fight for this life saving medication.

A common complaint from NGOs wanting to start doing video advocacy is that they are too overworked and don’t have the staff to take it on. What do you say to this?

If you are busy keeping important services running – for example, a needle exchange, then yes, you probably don’t have the time and capacity to make advocacy videos. But if you are an advocacy organization, then advocacy is your main task, and then film is a very powerful tool to help you achieve your program goals, so you should look at ways to enable you to do it.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Our films are all made for a purpose – we advocate for change and we need viewers and fellow activists to really use them – to share them and to act up for the issues we highlight in these films. The film itself is not enough, we have to create activity with it. Its usually no more than sharing and sending an email, but as many examples have showed, it can really have an effect if enough people show their commitment to a cause.

To all of those who want to learn making videos – just start! With technology changing all the time, it’s no longer that expensive. Decent equipment is becoming much more affordable. And it’s not quality but content that really matters. Find ways to learn editing skills through friends, or if you speak English, there are very very good online tutorials and forums. Sometimes you will experience technical difficulties but they can always be solved — you just have to be patient.

Finally, I’d like to thank our donors who made this all possible — Commonsense for Drug Policy and OSI’s drug policy programs.

(A detailed report on HCLU’s advocacy videos produced in 2009 is available for download here. It features stories, images and a full database with links to streaming video and download content)


One response to “The power of video advocacy

  1. great article, thanx Brett

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