Communities moved to tears by their own ‘disaster movies’

Community groupsEducation

Educational films can be a great way to inform local communities about risks from potential natural disasters and health care issues. They are especially effective if they take on board the views and feelings of the local community involved.

Using recognisable places and faces helps to convey risk messages. Photo: Clive Mear/Tearfund

Dr Jonathan Stone is a risk management specialist and former Global Resilience Adviser at Tearfund. He recently worked as part of a team called the STREVA project, making a series of short films to communicate risks from volcanoes for small communities in Colombia and St Vincent in the Caribbean. Both areas have experienced volcanic activity in the past.  

‘Most risk communication films tell a story based on the expert's point of view – they are very factual and “correct”,’ says Jonathan. ‘How you frame risk is different for everyone. Not many people focus on the difficult choices people have to make. We wanted to tell a different story, where those affected by disasters played a significant role.’ 

As such, the team included local people in all stages of the film-making, from location sourcing and interviewing to the final edits. ‘For the risk message to be of value, people need to engage with the content they see and hear,’ adds Jonathan.

Guidelines for making films that have impact 

  • Encourage people to share oral histories of events.  
  • Look for multiple perspectives, from villagers to local government officials (it may be the first time either has heard each other’s point of view). 
  • Use recognisable places and faces: this helps to convey risk messages. 
  • Keep the films short, around four to six minutes but under ten minutes. 
  • Use historical events to inform future decisions and prompt reflection.  

Jonathan adds, ‘Images convey powerful emotions and a more immediate sense of space and place than written facts and statistics. We're not good at making decisions about risks we haven't seen or experienced, and the films allow us to experience what someone who has been there has done in that situation. They create a human connection.’ 

This was certainly Jonathan’s experience when he watched a community screening of the films they had made on St Vincent, outdoors with the speakers turned up and the sunlight fading. ‘Watching the films they had helped to make moved some of the local community to tears,’ he says. ‘It moved me to tears, too, and it wasn't because the film was sad. Disasters are difficult times; but this was a shared celebration, where people talked about seeing it with new eyes.’

The STREVA project team included local people in all stages of the film-making, from interviewing to the final edits.

Top tips for showing educational films in your church building

  • Think about sound. Will people be able to hear the film? People will usually cope if they cannot see the film well, but it is essential that they can hear it. Could you borrow some speakers or a PA system for the event? You may also want a microphone for the person introducing the film.
  • Find a screen to project the film onto. If you do not have a projector screen, you can use a light-coloured wall, a plain white bed sheet or even sheets of paper.
  • Check your power source. Make sure you have a reliable source of electricity, if possible. You will need it to power equipment such as laptops, DVD players, projectors, speakers etc. You could consider borrowing a generator from someone if needed.
  • Test the equipment several days before the screening to make sure it works. If there is a problem, you can try to fix it or find replacement equipment. If possible, bring spare equipment on the day in case something goes wrong.
  • Block out the light. If you are showing a film during the daytime, cover the windows to block out the light. This will make it easier for people to see the film. 

The tips on showing educational films are adapted from Community screenings for participatory video – a guide. To read this guide in full, visit and click on ‘Resources’ and ‘Screening guide’. These tips appeared in Footsteps 102 on health and faith. 

Watch more films from the STREVA project; read newly published research on the impact of using films to communicate risk and to prompt disaster education and preparedness. 

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Nick Wyke
Nick Wyke is the editor of the Tearfund Learn blog.