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Notes from the Reel World: The President's Column, Spring 2013

By Marjan Safinia

Dear IDA Community,

Our lead times for Documentary magazine are long. As I write this, the nation is still trying to come to grips with the unspeakable massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It's hard to watch, all this suffering. Harder still is the sharp reminder that we've lived through all this senseless violence before. Yet it feels important that we continue watching—and perhaps this time begin to comprehend how it came to pass.

I am reminded, too, of the responsibility and obligation of documentary filmmakers to bear witness to some of the most painful aspects of humanity. When most people choose to look away, or to distract themselves from those stark realities, documentary filmmakers look on, unflinching. It is important that we do so.

Something extraordinary happens when we bear witness. As any filmmaker will tell you, watching something raw and honest unfold in front of the camera is a life-changing experience.

But beyond that moment, beyond the extremes of tragedy and war, bearing witness to our own human struggles—from grand stories on the world's stage to the private pain of a family facing adversity—is what makes documentary such an influential and emotionally involving medium. And to be able to share these revealed truths with thousands of others is a remarkable gift.

At times, I wonder why more docs can't be entertaining, funny or light. As you might imagine, I watch a lot of documentaries, and some days the growing pile of films about burning issues seems almost too much to bear. But reluctant as I may sometimes be to press play, I am always thankful that I did. Whether those stories come from dusty villages in some remote part of the world, icy peaks where man reckons with nature, or suburban living rooms right here in the United States, these naked reflections of our shared humanity are powerful reminders that what we share is so much greater than what divides us.

With in-depth investigative journalism becoming ever more rare, it increasingly falls upon documentary filmmakers to tell the important stories of our time, something we think about a lot at IDA. And yet, without the same protections afforded to journalists, filmmakers can often find themselves facing difficult legal challenges when the existence of their footage threatens people in power. Should documentary filmmakers be allowed to protect their sources, as journalists do? Should documentary filmmakers be subjected to personal search and abuse of privacy because their work treads sensitive ground? In a changed media world, should we not also change the rules of protection for documentary filmmakers?

At IDA, advocacy is one of the most important pieces of our work. Protecting the freedoms of expression and the rights of those who share their stories with filmmakers is something we continue to put front and center, because without those brave witnesses, our world would be a darker, less comprehensible place.

Until next time,


Marjan Safinia
Board President