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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, January / February 1997

By Timothy Lyons

Talking with Toni Treadway recently, about her article to appear in this issue, really got my mind stirring. Toni's a thinker, a wanderer, who likes to probe the implication of something rather than be content with mere information. Such folks are stimulating, refreshing, challenging.

"What about funding?" she asked, as though I might have the answer. "I mean, with PBS and NEA under fire, what 's the implication of turning over funding to organizations that don't want to pay for the kind of serious research that a good documentary needs?" Certainly we're already seeing a marked drop in per minute funding for projects on the broadcast and cable outlets. Is the answer that documentarians will simply work for less? Will the economies that come with reduced funding detract from the substance of the works? It gives one pause. Is the future, as Sandrine Simonnet suggested in the last issue, to be ruled by the needs of televi­sion's programming, rather than by topics that individuals need to explore because so little is known?

"And the first person documentaries: what 's the implication there?" Another good question. There's something so refreshing about the appearance of the documentarian as participant in a film, the stripping away of that outmoded veneer of objectivity, the frank admission of subjectivity. But does the veracity of the documentary as a sliver of truth become downgraded in the process? A nd is the rise of the first person documentary a development of narrowing the floodlight on society into a thinly-beamed spot (to paraphrase Mr. Grierson, just a bit)?

"Has traditional storytelling become so old fashioned, so de rigueur, that the standard approach for documentaries is resigned to be non-linear?" That 's a bit complicated, I think, and involves so much from the post-structural revolution in aesthetics, development s in off-line editing technology, and an apparent lack of hommage to classic documentaries in general. Then, again, could we have had The War Room without Primary?

"When archives are being pressed to generate money in the same way that stock houses do, will something not in obvious demand get saved?" This, I think, strikes at the heart of the New Federalism that has pervaded our culture for a couple of decades now, slowly but surely doing away with long-range investments and encouraging immediate rewards from trendy entrepreneurship. There's always the chance that a documentary on a contemporary subject twenty years from now will have little recourse but to depend on footage available from the 30-second spot on broadcast news.

Toni mentioned these concerns as topics for future issues of the magazine. They jive well with what I have in mind. I doubt we'll come up with the answers here, but sometimes it's more important simply to raise the questions. I'm not saying that such issues will replace the kind of coverage of festivals, and funding, and current activities that are the hallmark of the magazine. But may be once or twice an issue, to raise and grapple with some of the thornier matters, is a decent idea. Readers with some response to these: your letters are welcomed for publication. And an e-mail to might just help keep my mind stirring.


Timothy J. Lyons