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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, Summer 2016

By Marjan Safinia

Dear IDA Community,


Like most people, I have been gripped by politics this year. Having recently been naturalized as an American citizen, I get to vote this year for the first time and, like many thousands of others, my decision to go from Green Card holder to citizen was precipitated by the impending elections. It’s hard to think of a time when the choices have been more polarizing, or the stakes higher.

Beyond the individual personalities involved, and how favorably or unfavorably you may think of them, at the core of the matter are the underlying issues that are suffocating Americans. I imagine that those on each side of the fence feel they have a clear handle on what those issues are, but beyond the news headlines and campaign talking points, there seems to be one critical difference: an awareness of how real lives are being lived. And that’s where documentaries come into play.

Kartemquin Films coined an intriguing phrase to sum up its 50-year body of work: “Sparking democracy through documentary.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. What does that really mean, and what role does documentary storytelling really play in democracy?

I recently took a weekend to catch up with documentaries on my DVR. I watched a handful of different docs, randomly picked from the treasure trove of recordings I had amassed just from Independent Lens and POV alone. As I made my way through the films, I saw the issues of our times playing out across my screen. Gun control, veterans issues, over-incarceration, immigration policy, reproductive rights, racial equality, gender equality, healthcare, access to education, job opportunities and implications of foreign policy. It’s hard to think of a single critical issue of our time and not respond with, “There’s a doc for that.”

Each of these stories, told from the point of view of real lives, chips away at our personal bubbles and allows us to explore and weigh polarizing ideas. I may not have lived many of these experiences, but through the painstaking work of fellow documentarians, I’m able to have an idea of what it might feel like. Watch a well-told documentary and it’s impossible not to be moved, to feel empathy. And isn’t empathy at the very core of the idea of democracy? How can we make informed decisions that are best for all if we are ignorant of other perspectives? How can we shift the decision-making frame from “what’s best for me” to one of social responsibility? This question is at the heart of the political divide, and I would argue that documentaries are an incredibly powerful tool to bridge this gap.

So as Election Day approaches, instead of wringing your hands in fear of what may come to pass, start sharing the most powerful documentaries you’ve seen. Invite those who disagree with you to sit and watch them with you. I promise that it’s more effective to let these stories gently unlock their hardwired human instinct for empathy—and you may just find your own opinions shifting, too. It’s the democratic thing to do.


Until next time,


Marjan Safinia

IDA Board President