Seeing Both Sides: Using Dialogue to Understand Documentary

I’ve had 18 years of classes from the beginning of kindergarten to the end of my master’s degree. All of these courses taught me something valuable, but there’s one class that I look back to for having shaped who I am as a person and a professional. During the first semester of my senior year, I enrolled in “Communicating through Dialogue” taught by Dr. Patty Hawk at Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU) in Lincoln, Nebraska. The class looked into how dialogue can be used as a communication tool to approach and transform social issues.

All of the films and TV shows we work with at Picture Motion have the power to start conversations and instigate social change. I reconnected with my former professor to talk about how documentaries can be a stepping stone into dialogue and change. Her experience in dialogue started in 2002 when she participated in “Engaging Impasse,” a 15-month dialogue experience. She also focused her dissertation on the concept and helped incorporate dialogue into NWU’s curriculum.

Distinguishing Dialogue from Debate

Dialogue, in simple terms, can be described as a conversation. However, there are aspects of a dialogue that differentiates it from “small talk” or a debate. Dr. Hawk explains that there are three aspects used to discern dialogue from other types of communication. First, participants must know that, although they can have a strong point-of-view on an issue, they must stay open to hearing other perspectives. Second, participants must listen deeply. “Not just attentive listening, but authentic listening that comes from genuine curiosity about the other person,” explained Dr. Hawk. Third, the dialogue group will foster a safe environment that “respects difference, welcomes dissent, is comfortable with silence, recognizes pain, and nurtures patience.” This doesn’t mean the discussion will be conflict-free, but it does mean that participants will approach the conflicts with understanding and acceptance.

Documentaries + Dialogue

Dr. Hawk uses the documentary Refusing to be Enemies in her course to step into a conversation about the conflict between Palestine and Israel. By harnessing the information provided in documentary films and shows, a group of individuals can dive into a dialogue focused around the social issues mentioned.

National Geographic’s From the Ashes gives a comprehensive view of the coal industry and its impact on our health, economy, and climate. This documentary can be used to not only bring bring everyone up-to-speed on the current situation of the industry, but can also present personal testimonies from different sides of the polarized social issue.

LA92, also a National Geographic documentary, retells the days of protests, violence and looting in Los Angeles following the Rodney King trial verdict with chilling footage and news coverage. The film tackles two current topics, race and police brutality, that can evoke strong emotions when brought into a conversation. Dr. Hawk gave a list of tips for groups looking to dive into dialogues that might be challenging for participants:

  • Nurture trust: Spend time getting to know one another before diving into the issue.
  • Talk about expectations: Begin with a short description of what you will be doing. Dialogue should not feel like a mystery to people who have not participated. Make the directions clear, brief and inviting.
  • Nurture a comfortable space: Choose a location that will be comfortable to all participants. Perhaps have some drinks and snacks. Have soft lighting and comfortable seating.  
  • Avoid surveillance or assessment: Begin with clear instructions but then ‘hold your tools lightly’. Don’t let the guidelines for the dialogue constrain participants. Let people be who they are going to be. Encourage respect, but try not to hover.

Films have the power to inform and, by utilizing dialogue, the power to change perspectives too. When a conversation incorporates the deep listening talked about previously, a dialogue is born. Dr. Hawk explains that a formal ‘dialogue’ plan isn’t always necessary. “This means that dialogue can emerge in any conversation, even a debate,” she said. “Rather than seeing something as dialogue or not dialogue, we are looking for moments of dialogue.” A moment of dialogue following a documentary screening can lead to a deeper understanding of the issues and even change in your community.


By: Elizabeth Cox, Los Angeles Intern

Elizabeth will graduate with her master’s in public relations from Boston University in August. She received a bachelor degree in communication studies with a minor in Journalism from Nebraska Wesleyan University. She describes her background as “Nebraska entertainment,” working with a nonprofit event center to market for rodeos, a county fair, and a summer concert. As an undergrad, Elizabeth developed a passion for mental health awareness, starting NWU’s first mental health club and awareness week. For her final master’s project, she developed a platform called Direct It to help individuals share their story of living with a mental illness. She enjoys reading biographies, cheering on the Red Sox, and knitting hats for her east coast friends. Her website (and blog) is