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Notes from the Reel World: The Executive Director's Column, Spring 2016

By Simon Kilmurry

Dear IDA Community,


In January I had the honor of serving on the US Feature Documentary Jury at the Sundance Film Festival. While the 16 films we saw represent just a slice of the many that are made each year, it was a concentrated and intense overview of how diverse and dynamic documentary films are in both form and content. We selected our winners and honorees, but I don't kid myself that another jury might have easily picked another slate of films to recognize.

Juries, like all "taste-making" entities, are ultimately subjective. Even when we try to apply objective criteria, the subjective and personal taste naturally sneaks in. Why am I saying this? It is not to undermine or hedge our selections, but to recognize that we should be careful, when we celebrate those winning films, not to set aside those films that did not win.

In remarks at a Sundance Documentary Filmmaker Program event at the festival, DFP Director Tabitha Jackson talked about creativity being a "messy process." A number of films in the festival were evidence of this—often exhilaratingly so. Like a Russian doll, documentary film encompasses many forms within it. When you pause and think about it, it can be difficult to reconcile all these approaches under the documentary banner. They are a form of creative and artistic expression, they are tools in the arsenal of social change-makers, they are a form of journalistic inquiry, they are generators of empathy and outrage—and they often do all these things at once.

In remarks at the same event, filmmaker Robert Greene noted, "Documentary filmmaking is the most elastic form," and we should embrace and celebrate that elasticity. It should excite us when filmmakers are brave enough to push the boundaries with form and function. Greene went on to say, "Art changes how we see the world; it reconfigures our souls." I can't think of a more exciting space to be working in when that reconfiguration is a possibility.

As we move toward IDA's Getting Real conference in September in Los Angeles (hold the dates: September 27-29!), we have had many discussions with colleagues to see what issues people want to talk about. And while issues of career sustainability and diversity are at the top of most lists—and they will certainly be central to the conference—the one issue that keeps popping back up is the art and craft of documentary filmmaking.

It goes back to storytelling; that is area that gets people really excited, and it's probably the one that ties these disparate approaches within a form together. It's what drives us—creative storytelling as a means to explore and make sense of the world, to expose injustice, to examine the marginalized, to celebrate stories large and small. And, ultimately, documentary films are a social good and a form of vital creative expression—and these two qualities are inextricably linked. So, please join us in Los Angeles, where we'll be bringing together hundreds of people involved in this messy and creative field to talk about issues big and small; to listen to, learn from and challenge each other; and to embrace and celebrate the creative stew that documentary is. And thanks to Sundance for reminding me, through watching all the films, just how darned exciting this field is this year.


Until next time,


Simon Kilmurry

IDA Executive Director