Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, December 1998
When Sheila Nevins accepted the IDA Career Achievement Award at our annual Gala in late October, she referred to herself as "colloquial." By definition, "colloquial" means both "familiar" and "popular." Good choice of words—for Sheila, and for documentaries.
This hasn't always been the case for documentaries. As our guest scholar for IDC3, Peter J. Bukalski , stated in his "Milestones in the History of Documentary" for the IDC3 Handbook, "Greater numbers of documentaries are being produced and seen today than at any time in history." He also cautioned us that "the huge contemporary audience is increasingly fragmented, jeopardizing adequate levels of support for the documentarian." No matter how "familiar" and "popular" documentaries are becoming, we've arrived at that inevitable crossroad of art and commerce.
How we as documentary makers, programmers, distributors and enthusiasts meet the challenges before us may say as much about us as about the legacy of documentary which we've joined. The Lumières, Robert Flaherty, John Grierson, Joris Ivens, Pare Lorentz and others led the way in creating and establishing the documentary film. Hollywood filmmakers adopted 16mm film and documentaries in support of the war effort and mobilized a nation. European television broadcasters used documentaries as a programming staple while U.S. broadcasters-CBS, NBC, ABC and later PBS—gradually created series to present documentaries to mass audiences. Satellite systems then led to the entry of HBO, Discovery, A&E and others into the production and distribution of documentaries around the world. In short order, new technologies will put documentaries on our desktops at will via the Internet.
This inevitable progression became clear one evening during IDC3: within moments of one another, documentary greats Ricky Leacock, Al Maysles, Bob Drew and D.A. Pennebaker each pulled out their ever smaller digital cameras to record dinner table conversation. In their hands, new technologies have and will continue to set new standards in documentary. For the next generation of Leacocks, Maysles, Drews, and Pennebakers, we have an obligation to preserve and share our rich tradition in storytelling and documenting reality as they master the new technologies as their primary tool.
New creative, technological and financial challenges will shape the documentary form well into the next millennium. At the IDA we have just begun a process which will help define our role in this exciting and demanding future. At their fall meeting, IDA Trustees established a task force to look ahead, to create a vision for this organization to carry us into the next century. During the coming months, we will be seeking advice and comment from many in this process. This is my invitation to you to share with us, by sending a note or email (firstname.lastname@example.org) to me, your aspirations for the JOA of the future.
It's taken a century for documentaries to arrive at the point where "colloquial " is an apt description. What we do with this new level of maturity and acceptance is up to us, as individuals and as an organization. I expect that we as documentarians can meet the future with creativity, innovation and enthusiasm , which will do our predecessors proud.