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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, October 2001

By Michael Donaldson

Dear IDA Members:

My original “Notes from the Reel World” for this October issue addressed the many documentary-related events happening this month in Los Angeles—DOCtober, IDA’s documentary film festival at the Laemmle Monica FourPlex—and New York—HBO’s Frame-by-Frame, in collaboration with IDA—and around the world. But the world is a much more sobering place now—one of unease, deep sorrow, anger and profound loss. September 11, like December 7 and November 22, will forever more be a touchstone in our lives.

And where does documentary film and documentary filmmaking fit in the wake of this grand tragedy? How can we make a difference, respond to what we’ve felt and experienced in the last few weeks, and create something of lasting, resonant value? As The New York Times so eloquently documented, artists of every discipline have risen to occasions of great grief and despair. Picasso’s Guernica; the requiems of Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and Benjamin Britten; Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; Robert Capo’s photography from the Spanish-American War; Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table: These are a few works that comfort, that lend some hope, that nurture the heart, mind and soul.

What’s special about documentary film is that those who practice this art form dare to explore unknown and possibly dangerous terrain and return with something close to the truth. Documentarians train their cameras on foreboding catacombs and passageways for real-life stories and dynamic characters, working for years at a time as the narrative unfolds before them in often unexpected ways. Think about Vietnam, America’s longest and most dispiriting war. Think about Peter Davis and Bert Schneider’s Hearts and Minds and the horrific, hallucinatory images from the battlefront. Think about Barbara Sonnenborn’s Regret to Inform, released a quarter-century later, in which the filmmaker returns to the place where her husband was killed in Vietnam, while weaving in reflections from widows on both side of the conflict. Think about Mike Majoros and Bestor Cram’s An Unfinished Symphony, part of this month’s DOCtober, which uses Henryk Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony in its entirety as a thematic catalyst for contemplating the Vietnam experience.

As we try to move forward in these unsettling times, let’s harness that power we have as documentarians. Let’s remember the thousands of people we lost last month, and the thousands more who were damaged by the sights and sounds of what we experienced: remember their stories, their dreams, their aspirations. Remember their families and friends. Let’s make films that will speak for the tenor of the times and that, generations from now, people will look to as classics.



Michael C. Donaldson
IDA President