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Filmmakers Focus Their Lens on Social Entrepreneurs

A social entrepreneur is someone who solves a societal problem with a novel solution that benefits humanity, particularly people in the world's poorest communities. Take, for example, British education advocate Ann Cotton. She started a program to support young African girls whose families could not afford school fees. The young women return to their communities as leaders and educators themselves.

A mission to support agents of social change

Ten years ago, Internet executive Jeff Skoll set up a foundation to invest in social entrepreneurs and innovators like Ann Cotton. Foundation executive Sandy Herz says Skoll focuses on causes that bridge the world's economic disparities.

"He has believed for a long time that it is the growing gap between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' that is driving the biggest issues facing the future of our planet," she explains, "whether that's climate change or global health and pandemics, peace and security."

To address those challenges, the foundation invests in social entrepreneurs, "people who have big compelling systemic solutions to the large-scale challenges facing our future," Herz says. The Skoll Foundation currently supports about 60 social entrepreneurs.

Jeff Skoll and his friend - actor and activist Robert Redford - believed film was the best way to promote the work they were doing. Combining the resources of Skoll's foundation and Redford's Sundance Institute, they set up a $3-million film project called "Stories of Change." From more than 300 proposals, 10 film projects received grants of up to $150,000 to produce documentaries.

Documenting the process of finding solutions

Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, says the filmmakers spend many months building trust with the social entrepreneurs they are profiling.

"These are complex human portraits of what it takes to make change in this world. They may not always appear to be nice or even right in these films because they have to grapple with problems, and like all human beings, sometimes they make mistakes, too, and they have to recover from that. The difference with our social entrepreneurs is they do recover from it, and they change direction and they come up with a better solution."

One of the documentaries funded by the Stories of Change project focuses on 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. Yunus developed a banking concept known as microcredit in Bangledesh and founded the Grameen Bank. It makes small loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional financing. He's now taking his bank worldwide.

American filmmaker Gayle Ferraro followed Yunus around the world for over a year to make her movie.

"Yunus has always believed that the banks need to prove they are people-worthy," she says, adding that, unlike other financial institutions, his loans are based on need.

"He's just a very humble and modest and endearing kind of person. He hugs everyone, everyone! I think that's why he does so well. He gets 700 hugs a day," she says with a laugh. "I'm not exaggerating!"

Under the working title Muhammad Yunus Banks on America, Ferraro's film documents the opening of one of Yunus' banks in Queens, New York.

Other films in the Stories of Change project include an effort to shrink Africa's digital divide. Another documentary features an organization that set up secret schools for Afghan women and girls who were forbidden to learn under Taliban leadership.

Taking risks for a cause

"There is no question that some of these social entrepreneurs are working in conflict zones," says Sundance executive Cara Mertes, observing that filmmakers have documented the danger some social entrepreneurs face as they try to change the world. "They are working against traditional values, they are trying to do things that are in some way revolutionary, they are upsetting the status quo… indeed some of them are in direct danger."

Filmmakers and social entrepreneurs share a desire to address social issues, but see the value of their collaboration differently.

"The social entrepreneur sees the potential of filmmakers to tell such a compelling story that they would really move people to take action, and the filmmakers see in social entrepreneurs people that are actually changing the world on the ground," says Skoll's Sandy Herz.

But she notes that everyone comes out a winner. "By bringing these two groups together, we believe that the issues will be addressed more quickly and the solutions will take hold even faster."

Cara Mertes says film is leading the way to solutions for global problems.

"There is just an enormous amount of exchange and curiosity and commitment to the form going on in the world in a way I've never seen before. Anywhere you go people love to watch films and to hear about these stories. It is, in a way, a kind of glue that holds us all together and for that it's very powerful."

The films from Stories of Change are expected to start showing around the world in theaters and on television early next year.