5 World-Changing Filmmakers

A marker on a film set

Saikorn / Shutterstock

Film is a wonderfully expressive medium that has allowed humans to tell stories that move emotions and stir passions. Film has given us the comedy of Steve Martin, the mastery of Orson Welles, and the wonder of David Attenborough. Online media allows films to be easily disseminated, spreading messages at a speed that was once thought impossible. A simple video of a brutal police crackdown in a far-flung nation can quickly go viral and bring the attention of the world to the offending regime. Bigger films can educate people about complex topics or move them to act on important issues like education, energy, and agriculture. A camera's lens can tell the story in a way no other medium can do. Without filmmakers like the ones listed here, none of these important stories would get shared as far and wide.

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Josh Fox

International Wow Co.

In 2008, Josh Fox received a letter that would change the course of his life and help bring attention to one of the more important issues in energy. That letter was from a gas drilling company, offering to lease his family's land in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. The lease would be for $100,000 to drill for natural gas. Fox wanted to help his family make an informed decision and did some research on natural gas drilling. What he found was so troubling that he started documenting his quest for answers. Over the course of a year and a half, he shot 200 hours of footage that he crafted into the 104-minute “Gasland,” a documentary about the effects of natural gas drilling, in particular the dangerous practice of fracking. The film has introduced the issue to millions of people and garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature in 2011. (Photo shows Fox, left, testing the flammability of drinking water at a home in Fort Lupton, Colo.)

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Annie Leonard

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Annie Leonard is the writer, director and star of the popular video "The Story of Stuff," a 21-minute video that clearly lays out the problem of our societal addiction to stuff — owning stuff, buying stuff and throwing out old stuff. It's not an easy message to hear, since nearly all of us are complicit in the problem of stuff, but it's one that we all need to hear. Leonard is responsible for getting people to at least think about the problem, even if they all don't agree with her. She has since branched out and produced videos about cap and trade, bottled water, cosmetics, electronics, and the story of Citizens United v. FEC.

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Davis Guggenheim

Participant Media.

Davis Guggenheim is the director and producer responsible for two world-changing movies, Al Gore's “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting for Superman,” a gripping documentary highlighting the unequal opportunities available in the public education system. “An Inconvenient Truth” dragged climate change into the public sphere in a huge way and is responsible for waking up a lot of people to the dangers of runaway global warming. “Waiting for Superman” tackles a problem that seems just as difficult as climate change to solve, both politically and technically — education. It follows kids in different districts around the country as they battle through the lottery system to try to score coveted spots at limited enrollment schools within the public system. When Guggenheim isn't making influential documentaries, he works as a commercial film director and producer.

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Franny Armstrong

Photo: Spanner Films/Flickr [CC by 2.0]

Franny Armstrong is a British documentary filmmaker who first gained prominence in the progressive community after her 1997 documentary "McLibel," which tells the story of two environmental activists under legal attack by the McDonald's Corp., was blocked from broadcast by McDonald's lawyers. The resulting uproar over the legal blockade was the best marketing campaign a filmmaker could hope for and the film was ultimate seen by millions of people around the world.

Her 2009 film, "The Age of Stupid," stars Pete Postlethwaite and tells the story of a future ravaged by extreme climate change. In the movie, major cities around the world have been swallowed up by floods, ravaged by fires, and contaminated with nuclear waste while the characters deal with their respective issues and look back to ask why we didn't do more to stop it. Armstrong turned to the Internet to raise money for her film and raised nearly a million and a half dollars through crowd funding.

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Louie Psihoyos

Oceanic Preservation Society.

Louie Psihoyos is an American photographer and documentary filmmaker who directed and appeared in “The Cove,” the shocking documentary exposing the culture of whale and dolphin slaughter practiced by residents of Taiji, Wakayama, Japan. Taiji residents hold yearly dolphin roundups and select some for sale to water parks and aquariums while killing the others for their meat. The waters run a deep red and echo with the dolphins’ panicked screams as they're speared, chopped and sliced to death by men in boats and on shore. Psihoyos and his team had to deploy extreme covert surveillance tactics to get their footage and were often under real threat from local fisherman and officials. (Photo shows Psihoyos and another team member in a blind at Taiji.)