December 15, 2009

Mertes Holds Court in Year-End Doc U

Introduced by IDA Board President Eddie Schmidt as "the woman who holds the fate of your documentary career in her hands," Cara Mertes, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and past executive producer of POV, held court for well over two-and-a-half intermissionless hours before a rapt audience for this the final Doc U of 2009. Among the attendees included Academy Award nominee Chuck Braverman; the venerable Marina Goldavskaya, the 2008 IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award honoree; Patricia Finneran, the New York-based senior consultant to the Documentary Film Program; and Kristin Feeley, manager of the Documentary Film program. Mertes noted that the Sundancers in the house had bypassed their own holiday party to attend this yuletide presentation.

Left to right: IDA Board President Eddie Schmidt, Cara Mertes, IDA Executive Director Michael Lumpkin.

Mertes discussed an early inspiration: Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, which she saw growing up in Kansas, and was the prime spark in opening up cinematic possibilities for her. She showed Cut Piece, a short, rarely seen work by the Maysles Brothers, that captures a young Yoko Ono performing a conceptual art piece on stage at Carnegie Hall, in which she invites members of the audience to come up and cut off pieces of her clothing until she's nearly naked. I had seen the film before the 2007 WACK exhibit on feminist art from the 60s and 70s, and I was struck by the mastery
of the cinematography, how the Maysles Brothers elegantly capture Yoko Ono the art piece, Yoko Ono the artist, and Yoko Ono the human being-and, as Schmidt pointed out at Doc U, Yoko Ono, the documentary subject. It was this kind of conceptual art, and the video art that people like Yvonne Rainier were doing,
that drew Mertes to this form. "I loved the fringes in all its spaces," she noted.

Mertes evolved from directing to producing and executive producing, all the while studying the masters, citing Barbara Kopple's Harlan County USA, as a great example of dramatic storytelling with the framing of the faces and the crosscuts of looks. "The answers lie in the classic work," Mertes advised the audience. And from there she cued up the first ten minutes of The Times of Harvey Milk-another prime mover for her in her early days in 1980s New York. She programmed Independent Focus, a showcase for vanguard work that ran on WNET Thirteen on Sunday nights at 11:00. Gus Van Sant's Male Noche and Spike Lee's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads
and Bill Viola's I Do Not Know What I Do Not Have were among the works she programmed. And when her boss, Mark Weiss, went on to launch POV in 1988, she continued to run the local version, showing Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied prior to its culture wars-fanning national airing on
POV in 1991, thereby joining Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, Andres Serrano and Robert Mapplethorpe in the Far Right's Pantheon of Shame. "It was an era-defining piece," Mertes noted of Tongues Untied, Riggs' meditation on black gay identity. "Marlon Riggs made it for friends in San Francisco, and it destabilized PBS. PBS never recovered from the culture wars."


Between Independent Focus and POV, Mertes produced Signal to Noise, a documentary series about television and media literacy. With grants from ITVS and CPB, she commissioned 21 pieces from 17 artists. Although she didn't screen clips from that production, she did screen the promo piece for POV's 15th anniversary, which she oversaw during her seven-year
tenure as executive producer, during which she also worked with filmmakers to develop websites and a community engagement program for each film that aired on the series. And one of her last acts there was providing the first funds for Robert Kenner's hit Food Inc. "Docs based on books tend to be successful," she noted, citing the ready-made audience for Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Schlosser and Pollan both make extensive appearances in the film, and Schlosser is a co-producer. Sundance 2010 will be presenting Michael Winterbottom's Shock Doctrine, based on Naomi Klein's best-selling book of the same name.

As for Sundance--both the festival and the institute--"Everyone is informed and at the top of their game" with respect to programmatic decision-making. The Sundance staff has a deep knowledge about documentary-where the form has been, where it's going, who the key players are, etc., "We're looking for new voices that surprise us," she said, citing Adele Horne's The Tailenders , Eric Daniel Metzgar's The Chances of the World Changing and Marshall Curry's Street Fight as works that grabbed her in the first minute of viewing--the kind of works that "define the language and the topic on their own terms...You get the programmers curious about the choices you're making. There's a purpose to the work that's true to the story and its characters."

Mertes also screened experts from Sundance's Stories of Change initiative, funded by the Skoll Foundation, which pairs filmmakers with social entrepreneurs. One of the films, To Catch a Dollar, about Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus' efforts to replicate his microfinancing model in Queens, NY, filmmaker Gayle Ferrarro overhauled the entire narrative after taking her film to the Sundance Labs; Mertes showed clips from both versions-one from Yunus' POV, and the other from
the POV of the Queens-based women who were beneficiaries of his entrepreneurship.

Mertes described the Labs as a "documentary village," with six advisors working with the filmmakers to "bring the film from good to great." She emphasized that there is a firewall between the Documentary Program and the festival and that there's no guarantee that a film coming out of the Labs or the funding program will be accepted into the festival-although nine docs from the program will be premiering at Sundance 2010. 

Taking questions from the audience, Mertes advised one filmmaker, "Don't be afraid to wait" until your film is ready to be submitted to Sundance, and that even if the film doesn't get in, "programmers talk to programmers " on the festival circuit and that your film might be right for
SXSW or Tribeca. Responding to a question about what docs are not being made, she noted that she was not seeing enough experimental filmmaking, most likely because that's not where the funding is; foundations and individual like films that will have an impact. Mertes also cited the "tyranny of the character-driven film"--itself driven by broadcasters who are looking for millions of viewers. She
cited Jessica Yu (Protagonist; Into the Realms of the Real) as a filmmaker who subverts the traditional storytelling strategy, with impressive results.