Adventures in Screening Documentaries
For a number of years, Niles Discovery Church in Fremont, California, has been involved in hosting documentary screenings that reflect core values such as caring for God’s creation and seeking a just world for all. We call our program the Second Saturday Documentary Series. It started the same year that “An Inconvenient Truth” became available on DVD. With many lessons learned along the way, the program has been popular. For other churches seeking to pursue a similar ministry, the story of its development and the challenges faced is shared here.
At first, the program was spearheaded by a small group of people living in the area who worked in cooperation with the San Jose Peace and Justice Center. Documentaries were screened at a local library when the conference room could be reserved. However, it became harder and harder to reserve the conference room and there was a desire to set up a regular schedule. Because our church was concerned with the same sorts of topics that the documentaries covered, we became a cosponsor of the series. Eventually, the original leadership decided they needed to take a break, and the series was taken over by Niles Discovery Church and the San Jose Peace and Justice Center.
We now have a core group of five we call “the producers.” These people are responsible for selecting the documentaries we want to screen and obtaining permission for the screenings. Back in the days before the pandemic, the screenings would happen in the church and would be advertised beyond the mailing list that had been developed, so these were considered public screenings. Typically, this meant we needed to pay for public screening rights (though some producers waived screening rights fees). There have been several documentaries we have not shown because the cost for public screening rights was too high.
During the first three months of the pandemic, we went on hiatus. We then decided to try screenings online. First, we selected movies that could be streamed by individuals on our mailing list. People were sent a link to stream the movie on their own (obtained through companies like Good Docs), and then we gathered on Zoom on the second Saturday of the month to talk about the film. We found attendance was poor. We tested out streaming films directly through Zoom and then followed the screening with discussion. Attendance improved, even though the video quality could be a bit jumpy at times. The screening rights we’ve been able to obtain during the pandemic have been limited to the organization, so we are not promoting the series beyond those who are on our mailing list.
We hope that in the not-too-distant future we will be able to return to the church building for documentary screenings and discussions and once again obtain public screening rights so we can more actively promote the series. On our Facebook Page, you can get a sense of the documentaries we have shown.
The Rev. Jeff Spencer is the Senior Pastor at Niles Discovery Church and a member of the UCC Council for Climate Justice.