SIMA Studios: Advancing positive social change through documentaries and creative media

Through an annual Awards event, an educational streaming platform, and year-round community screening programmes, SIMA supports content creators, educators, organizations and changemakers worldwide.

UN SDG Action Campaign
UNITE TO ACT Blog Series
9 min readDec 20, 2023


Can storytelling drive SDG impact? According to Daniela Kon Lieberberg, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Ms. Kon Lieberberg is a global media executive, educator, and veteran impact producer whose career at the intersection of human rights, community development and non-fiction storytelling spans over two decades with an extensive stint as a documentary filmmaker for international humanitarian organizations across South East Asia and West Africa.

“Unfortunately, the storytelling they were commissioned to create often ended up doing more harm than good. It reinforced binaries of givers versus receivers and heroes versus victims, perpetuating stereotypes and dependencies,” Ms. Kon Lieberberg said.

“Instead of empowering local changemakers to drive the direction of local development, it too often robbed them of their dignity.”

Compelled to make a change, Ms. Kon Lieberberg founded SIMA in 2012, introducing the Social Impact Media Awards (SIMA), a global competition for transparent, authentic, and ethical documentary filmmaking that has the power to inspire positive change from within local communities. The SIMA Awards competition started with almost 500 entries in the first year. Today, it spans a network of 3,500 filmmakers in 140 countries who submit their work to win awards and participate in SIMA’s distribution programs, bringing films to communities in over 100 countries.

In 2016, Ms. Kon Lieberberg invited a group of high school students to participate in the pre-selection committee of the annual awards. The profound impact this experience had on them and witnessing how transformative SIMA-selected films could be to activate youth both outside and inside the classroom was the catalyst for starting SIMA Academy, which has expanded into an online distribution channel for students and changemakers, featuring the best films from the annual SIMA awards, providing unprecedented access to vetted, globally-sourced, and authentic insights into the realities of those living and working to solve the global challenges of our time. SIMA now serves creative, social impact and academic industries in over 100 countries.

The UN SDG Action Campaign spoke with Ms. Kon Lieberberg in September during the Global Week to #Act4SDGs to understand how SIMA unites to act to support content creators, educators, organizations and changemakers worldwide.

Photo of Director Stefano Levi of OUT OF THE DARKNESS, #SIMA2023 Ethos Jury Prize Winner

Thank you, Daniela, for speaking with us. SIMA Academy has framed itself as the Netflix of sustainability-focused documentaries. Why is video such a powerful medium for SDG storytelling?

Video is the most compelling and influential tool for experiencing, learning, and finding inspiration. Its ability to evoke emotions and establish a personal connection takes viewers directly into the heart of the action. Documentaries, with their creative exploration of reality, uniquely create a deeply personal experience for the viewer, adding a vital sense of actuality and relevance. They bring the SDGs to life, helping us gain a personal understanding of their real-world implications, demystifying them, and unpacking their complexities in a tangible and relatable way.

Documentaries crafted by filmmakers who have lived through the stories they capture possess the added power of authenticity, which is felt throughout the viewing experience, adding another level of trustworthiness and credibility.

I should note that SIMA Academy combines two distinct documentary genres in our streaming collection: Documentary Shorts that capture personal and character-driven narratives and Impact Videos that show behind-the-scenes stories of local impact projects, capturing not only WHAT and WHY, but HOW the impact works. This combination of stories about those experiencing and those solving global challenges allows us to take viewers on a transformative journey from empathy and curiosity to critical thinking and action. Storytelling to advance the SDGs should not be a mere intellectual exercise. It should animate us by taking us on a journey that becomes our own. It’s about what happens after the credits roll.

A 4-film SIMA showcase at the The International Human Rights Film Festival in Buenos Aires, hosted by IMD — a non-profit designed to strengthen the treatment and study of themes about Human Rights in civil society.

2024 will mark a critical year for the future of the SDGs. Zooming in on one SDG priority, what challenge speaks to you the most and how are you and SIMA uniting to act for the SDGs?.

While we always emphasize the correlation between the SDGs, we definitely UNITE to ACT for Quality Education and Global Citizenship ( SDG4 / 4.7) as a fundamental driver. For us, they are the linchpin, not only as an individual goal but as a catalyst that informs and inspires action across the entire spectrum of sustainable development.

We are passionate about equipping educators and students with the insights needed to propel the SDGs forward and taking them on a journey that cultivates critical thinking, creativity, and participatory global citizenship. Today, we need education to spark conversations, challenge perspectives, and inspire action. Documentaries that showcase how communities worldwide are living and innovating to overcome global challenges play a crucial role in fostering this and can be a fast track to global citizenship.

We want to nurture the next generation of leaders, collaborators, and changemakers by inspiring a holistic approach that integrates vetted and authentic media into the educational fabric, extending beyond the classroom and impacting the community at large. Everyone, regardless of their background or circumstances, should have the opportunity to travel the globe via authentic storytelling and experience its transformative power to advance the SDGs.

We’re working to democratize access by making SIMA Academy available far and wide via our cross-device capabilities and in-app download features that ensure films can be streamed without Wifi. From refugee camps to rural schools, university campuses, and global leadership programs, we currently serve 1,000 organizations and plan to scale access tenfold in the coming year.

SIMA Academy being used in South Africa with partner, World Merit

SIMA has a fantastic catalog of documentaries covering the SDGs. Which are your top three documentaries that you think are must-see for our readers?

At the moment, the three top-ranking films are the following:

1) OUT OF PLASTIC directed by Line Hadsbjerg

OUT OF PLASTIC directed by Line Hadsbjerg | Exploring: SDG 6: Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG 13: Climate Action, and SDG 14: Life Below Water

19-minute documentary that sets out to explore the obscure depths of plastics in the Mediterranean. The film is set in the Balearic Islands, and offers viewers a moment to reflect on the profound presence of plastic in our lives and in our natural environment, while asking how our over consumption of single-use plastic has tipped the scales, to the detriment of nature, and ultimately ourselves.

2) KAYAYO directed by Mari Bakke Riise

KAYAYO directed by Mari Bakke Riise | Exploring: ​​SDG 1: No Poverty, SDG 5: Gender Equality, and SDG 10: Reduced Inequality

A 33 min documentary about Bamunu, an 8-year old “Kayayo”, which means “girl-carrier” in the Ga language. She is one of 10,000 girls in the capital of Ghana who work as real life shopping baskets on the markets. Bamunu has not seen her family since she was sent away from home two years ago to work as a Kayayo to support her family. We follow her daily life on the markets, her journey back home and what awaits there. Watch the Trailer

3) CAN’T HIDE ME directed by Madhuri Mohindar

CAN’T HIDE ME directed by Madhuri Mohindar | Exploring: ​​SDG 5: Gender Equality and SDG 10: Reduced Inequality

A 26 minute documentary about the often silent and subtle ways girls are bound by invisible chains in their homes, on the streets, in schools and public spaces. CAN’T HIDE ME captures what happens when girls find the courage to fight back. Based in India, the film follows the stories of three women, Parvati, Mallika and Heena, taking extraordinary steps to reclaim and fight the often invisible barriers that keep women from freedom. Watch the trailer.

To easily find films on the topics that interest you, search our robust indexing system with hundreds of unique filters, themes and curated playlists for all 17 SDGS.

For many, the quest for an equitable and sustainable future starts from within. What has been a key turning point in your life, and what have you learned from this that gives you hope for the current turning point we find ourselves in?

During my years as a filmmaker in the international development space, I witnessed and continue to remain convinced that sustainable futures are shaped when local leadership drives the direction of local development. I was able to see firsthand how changemakers with a vision for a better future came alive with an idea and a calling to challenge the status quo and motivated their communities to join them. At SIMA, our role is to empower and invest in changemakers, providing them with access to inspirational and educational resources, with opportunities that catalyze their creativity and help mobilize their communities. It brings me immense hope to see that it is working.

To take the example of our top-ranking films, OUT OF PLASTIC inspired students from the Philippines to create an advocacy campaign to ditch single-use plastic involving 3,000 members of their community. In Burundi, KAYAYO inspired a gathering with 250 attendees and local experts to explore the potential of entrepreneurship as a way to eradicate poverty. In Bangalore, India, CAN’T HIDE ME continues to inspire empowerment projects for women and girls.

We receive emails from leadership programs, changemakers, students, and educators from all over the world who have used SIMA Academy to jump-start local impact projects, often in collaboration with youth from different parts of the globe. Hearing about film clubs between the U.S. and Kenya; the Philippines and Canada; Palestine and Israel; where young groups who watch the same film on SIMA Academy connect via Zoom, learn about each other’s perspectives, and collaborate on advocacy campaigns makes me hopeful that providing a carefully curated platform of documentaries to draw inspiration from contributes to advancing the SDGs within classrooms, communities, across cultures, and beyond.

Take a look at our IMPACT STORIES blog for more examples of how SIMA films inspire community actions.

We have seen widespread attacks — also fueled by social media and fake news — on sustainability and on many SDGs. How does SIMA engage with storytelling in a world where information streams are frequently impacted by mis- and dis-information?

We take the widespread access to disinformation extremely seriously and firmly believe that SIMA Academy’s authentic narratives help develop the skills that help us discern media messages and combat disinformation. SIMA films aren’t just stories; they are tools enhancing media literacy, critical thinking, and cross-cultural understanding.

Our journey begins every year with the annual SIMA Awards, our global acquisitions pipeline, where we scout the planet for the most authentic filmmaking and meticulously curate a diverse, high-quality collection of documentaries.

Our judging metrics and vetting process involve over 50 pre-selection committee members worldwide from varying backgrounds. Every year they select approximately 20 titles to join SIMA Academy, acting as gatekeepers for films that prioritize ethics and transparency. We do not showcase promotional videos but rather films that raise questions, shedding light on the complex web of challenges, motivations, culturally and geographically specific circumstances inherent in daily life and all interventions to address the SDGs. Similar to the way “travel is fatal to prejudice,” so is the journey through nuanced portrayals of diverse and subjective realities from across the globe through films. This type of authentic storytelling provides an antidote to misinformation and offers a unique contribution to the present mainstream dialogue.

Providing changemakers, learners, and leaders with these unique resources contributes to a more informed and engaged global citizenry, armed with the discernment to critically navigate through the sea of information and recognize disinformation for what it is. We wholeheartedly invite you to join us.

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UN SDG Action Campaign
UNITE TO ACT Blog Series

Official account of the UN SDG Action Campaign, aiming to mobilize, inspire & connect a movement to #FlipTheScript for the #GlobalGoals