Andrew Morgan: Telling Stories for a Better Tomorrow

Filmmaker and director of The True Cost Andrew Morgan has received international acclaim for his powerful human storytelling and thought-provoking documentary films. Here, he tells us why he has focused his work on telling stories for a better tomorrow, how his experiences have inspired him to make changes in his own life, and what the inspiration behind his latest project with Bottletop and the #TOGETHERBAND campaign. 

If you’ve ever seen The True Cost Movie (if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), you will understand the profound impact that a documentary film can have as a catalyst for change. The True Cost, which tells the story of the clothes we wear, the people who make them, and the impact the industry is having on our world, has been seen by many thousands of people all over the world, inspiring a whole generation of activists to take a stand against the fast fashion industry and rethink their own consumption habits.

Four years after its release, its ongoing success continues to inspire director Andrew Morgan.  “I made The True Cost with a couple of friends that I had grown up with,” says Andrew.  “We had read an article about the Rana Plaza factory collapse, set up a kickstarter, called people like Livia [Firth, executive producer of The True Cost] and set about travelling and filming with a couple of little cameras. It just started from a place of incredible personal curiosity and concern, and it’s really special in my life.  The True Cost is one of the most beautiful examples of following that little voice inside of you, that sense that stirs you or moves you, and going and seeing where that leads. It changed my life personally – there’s not a day I wake up when I don’t think about those people. And so on top of that, to have it moved around the world in such a significant way, to see that people have started companies because of it, and people have started programmes at university because of it – it’s incredible, it’s everything that you hope for when you’re doing this kind of work.”

This kind of work, for Andrew, is about telling the real stories of ordinary people through the medium of film – with the aim of inspiring a better tomorrow. He first realised the power of storytelling as a child growing up in North Atlanta, which Andrew says felt very far from New York or Hollywood (“but the great thing about movies is that people see them everywhere”).  “I remember watching Steven Spielberg movies like E.T. when I was really young, and it was just more powerful than anything else I’d ever experienced.  I was always intrigued by this medium that had the power to make me sit on the edge of my bed, or cry, or laugh – it just innately felt very human, like it opened a door to some really truthful place.  I was a fan of film long before I knew how to make them, and I always knew I wanted to be a part of that process.”

This passion for film took Andrew to film school in LA, where he lives today with his wife Emily and their four children.  He soon determined to use his work to connect people around the world. “Roger Ebert once said: ‘Movies are empathy machines.’ and early on I remember thinking that our experiences as human beings are very limited –  the experiences I have in my lifetime are very small compared to all of the experiences of the human race at any given moment in history, but film somehow gives us all the ability to suspend belief and put ourselves in the shoes of another human being. I felt it in the spirit of big Hollywood movies, and I remember thinking, what could you do with that tool if you used it against the backdrop of real life and the experiences of real human beings on this planet that are maybe far different from our own? Maybe that could be super powerful medium. And I just kind of began to do it.”

Andrew’s first documentary, After the End, was a film about grief and loss that came out of a very personal experience in his own life.  “I got to travel and spend time in conversation with people who had experienced loss and had somehow made it through and found really meaningful lives on the other side of what felt like, at the time, the end. We released the movie and I would get notes from people all over the world saying that the film had helped them. And that just hooked me, that felt addictive. I could go on these journeys that were very personally meaningful and healing, and then I could share the results and someone else could find meaning, it could add value to someone else’s life.”

Next came The True Cost, which was another galvanising experience.  “I went into it very concerned about the individual human experiences, and I came out with this greater awareness and an overarching sense that some of the stories that we’ve set in motion around our world, some of the assumptions we’ve made, some of the systems we’ve built, are just horrifically unsustainable. And I think what when I realised that unsustainable systems, laws, norms, stories take their toll on the least fortunate people in the world, it lit a fire inside of me and sparked this sense of, what can I do as a storyteller in this very specific, extraordinary, odd, maddening, hopeful time that I’m living in?”

It had a profound impact on Andrew’s life.  “Somebody once said that documentary filmmaking is like speaking with a thousand voices,” he explains. “You go out and you spend a lot of your time listening and learning from people, and you get to follow people around in their everyday life and it’s unbelievably rich. You put a piece of your heart and soul into everything that you make and you take a piece of everything you make with you. 

“I’m sort of this strange amalgamation and accumulation of all these extraordinary people that I’ve got to spend time with.  I’m constantly trying to take some of the work that we’re doing on a really broad big scale and fold it back in to my everyday choices – I’m constantly trying to be a person that is more and more thoughtful about the impact that I’m having on the world in all ways, and I’m constantly discovering new areas that I’ve never thought of before.”

With The True Cost, it is Shima, one of the main characters who works in a garment factory in Bangladesh, who stays with him.  “I think her whole story and the time that we spent with her stands out to me – just the bravery and courage of a person that is facing not just systemic injustice but also personal danger and has continued to stand up and speak out and use her voice; it’s just a portrait of perseverance to me in a way that’s humbling. 

“In my work time and time again I’m just really struck by the fact that at the end of all things, the fate of the world is really going to be in the hands of the most everyday people.”

This is the recurring theme of Andrew’s latest film series for #TOGETHERBAND.  “Of course we should point tonnes of attention to the big powerful forces, states, and corporations that impact the world,” he says. “But at the same time we shouldn’t lessen the fact that we as people wake up everyday with incredible power. And whenever I spend time with someone that’s chosen to use the power that they have on behalf of other people, it just has a ripple effect, and to me that’s always the most inspiring thing.”

The #TOGETHERBAND campaign aims to raise awareness of the 17 Global Goals set out by the UN. Andrew’s involvement with the campaign came after being introduced to Bottletop founder Cameron Saul through a mutual friend, at a time when he was feeling particularly discouraged by the state of the world.  “It wasn’t too long after we were coming out of the 2016 election cycle here in the US,” recalls Andrew. “And honestly it was a pretty dispiriting time for me and for a lot of environmental activists especially. We had the US pulling out of the climate accord, and there was just so much stuff happening it just felt really discouraging. So as a filmmaker I just wasn’t really excited to go make another film about more problems. 

“I felt like a lot of people were feeling overwhelmed with how much challenge faced us in the world, and I was trying to figure out how we could make something that was more inspiring to everyday people. So we said, what if we could make documentaries that gave people a glimpse of just how much good one person can do, and we could see that work spill into other people around them? And that was just tremendously exciting to me.  Instead of going out looking for the biggest, most famous NGOs and the largest scale projects, we instead tried to find the most ordinary people and tried to learn from what they were doing and to see if we can inspire other people to do the same thing.”

The result is a mini series of documentary shorts aligned to each of the global goals. This month, the focus is on Goal 14: Life Below Water.  

“I think we’re in this revolutionary moment where we can see the impact that we’re having on the world in real time through the internet and through the power of social media.  Over the past 10 years we have suddenly been able to have incredible insight into the world around us that we had never had before, and that was really inspiring for me and a lot of people I know. But what a lot of us didn’t see coming was the fatiguing affect that so much information could have, and that ability for people to just be drowned in news, in stories.

“These films and this campaign is really about saying that yes, there’s a really big story unfolding around the world and it matters, people’s lives are at stake and there’s the one planet we call home and we don’t have time to waste, but the good news is that it is possible for us to create a better story moving forward. The inspiring part to me making them, and I hope to people watching them, is to say we are not passing bystanders, we get to be part of the story.”

Does he feel hopeful about the future of the planet?  “I think like anyone I wrestle back and forth and there’s moments I get discouraged. But for me there is a tremendous sense of untapped, unrealised, unmeasured potential in this new generation that’s coming along.  There’s beginning to be a profound shift in the conversation and the younger generation are really rolling up their sleeves and saying OK, this is flawed, what are we going to do about it? And that question of what are we going to do about it opens the possibility for so much innovation and change.

“I find myself profoundly more hopeful when I’m doing something. When in my own life I am choosing to step out of my own lane and do something for the benefit of someone else, suddenly I look at the world through glasses that say wow, people can change, because I’ve changed, I’m moving towards a place of greater awareness and I’m doing something about it. That’s what I’m inviting too through my work – could you take a step? You don’t have to go from where you are to be Mother Teresa, we’re not all going to be Jane Goodall, but could you take one step this week that moves your life one step closer in alignment to the things that you value and love and care about? And if you can, amazing, and maybe after that you’ll take another one.”

For Andrew and his family, this greater awareness of their own impact as people has led to more thoughtful conversation and consideration in their everyday choices.  “I was a very classically-raised American consumer,” he says. “Before making The True Cost I never thought twice about anything I bought, anything that came into my life frankly, which is really shocking because I was already thinking about a lot of these challenges in the world, I had just never connected them to my own personal consumption. So that was huge.  It started with clothes, obviously, and it kind of has moved across the board and seeped into the different corners of our life – what we eat, how we waste, what we use. It has even started to seep into the way we do work, and the way we travel.”

Andrew admits, however, that this is not always easy in his particular line of work.  “I’m not saying that we’re perfect because we’re not, my life has a massive footprint unfortunately,” he says. “But just beginning to take steps to offset that, to purchase less, to take things in more thoughtfully, to look at packaging, to think about discarding in appropriate ways – that’s a profound shift. And to anyone that’s reading, rewind 5 years and that thought had literally not crossed my mind.” 

It’s this spiral affect that Andrew finds so inspiring. “Action invites more action. That idea of taking in something, learning from it, taking it back home, trying to apply it.” 

When making a film in Costa Rica about plastic and its impact on the ocean, Andrew was moved to rethink his family’s use of single-use plastic.  “I came back and looked through my house with new eyes. I saw how much plastic there was in what I was taking in every week – and there’s a lot – and as someone who loves the ocean and surfs, to have suddenly connected it in real time to the health of something that I love, suddenly it was like, OK, how can we get thoughtful about it?  It just sort of unravels in a really wonderful imperfect way. To me that’s the really inviting thing. It’s exciting for my wife and I to think about ways that we can use less plastic, and it’s not daunting because we’re not beating ourselves up thinking about how we used plastic this week – we’ve used plastic every week of our lives, but we used less this week, and we’re going to use less next week, and to us that’s a really fun process.”

With thousands of documentaries now available at the touch of our fingertips through our televisions and internet, the power of human storytelling has never been more prevalent,. “Documentaries like Planet Earth and Blue Planet are extraordinarily beautiful and they make me realise what’s at stake in a positive way. I remember Racing Extinctionwas really heart-wrenching – just the rate of species extinction in our lifetime. IA lot of the plant-based food movement films changed the way our family eats a few years ago and that was game changing to me. I think that everytime I watch something I’m like the perfect audience,” he laughs. “I’m very easy to move.”

“It’s an amazing thing to see the cultural impact documentaries can have in multiple countries at the same time, it’s an incredible tool.”