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Notes from the Reel World, Winter 2022

By Rick Pérez

Dear IDA Community,

February 6, 2022 marked IDA’s 40th anniversary. In 1982, filmmakers-turned-psychotherapists Linda Buzzell and Larry Saltzman, among many other filmmakers and allies, identified the need to start an organization " encourage and to honor the documentary arts and sciences; to promote nonfiction film and video; to support the efforts of nonfiction film and video makers all over the world." While the original mission of IDA is fundamentally unchanged today, the documentary world itself has profoundly transformed since the organization’s founding. As IDA enters its fourth decade, I’ve identified three crucial pillars of conversation relevant to the present and immediate future of the documentary field: Art, Equity and Sustainability.

At the time of IDA’s founding, film and media executives believed that, as Linda Buzzell reminded us, "documentary was a hopelessly moribund art form, too boring for modern viewers." But the art of documentary has blossomed wildly since then. Films like Rodrigo Reyes’ 499, Sam Green’s One Thousand Thoughts, and the virtual and augmented reality projects Awavena and Collisions, by Lynette Wallworth, and Traveling While Black, by Roger Ross Williams, have redefined the possibilities of the form and taken audiences into new and unexpected nonfiction narrative landscapes. This brave new territory must be nurtured and embraced by the documentary community, and IDA will champion and support the expansion of the creative possibilities of this documentary genre.

Of course, since IDA’s early days, the documentary community has become acutely aware of the gross disparity that exists in our field. The unequal distribution of funding to BIPOC and disabled filmmakers, and filmmakers in the Global South, has resulted in fewer films by these storytellers as compared to their white counterparts. But the tragedy doesn’t end there. The consequence is that we have enabled the construction of a distorted global nonfiction narrative shaped by the perspectives of a dominant and resourced caste of storytellers. Who tells a particular story is no longer an abstract ethical question, but one whose answer shapes our collective understanding of the world. If IDA and the field are true to the power of the documentary filmmaker, permanently leveling the documentary field must become a priority now and forever.

The explosion of the commercial sector has radically raised the profile of documentary films, broadened their reach, infused the field with previously unimaginable budgets and introduced the possibility of sustainable careers for documentary makers. Unfortunately, this possibility continues to be open  mainly for some practitioners, while widening resource inequality for most. There is a metaphorical documentary one percent, but there's no documentary middle class.

As we embark on our 41st year, the challenge for IDA and the field will be to fortify the pillars of art, equity and sustainability, and use them as foundational principles upon which to build a vibrant and democratized documentary ecosystem. The creativity of the form will only continue as long as we and the field invest in and reward creative risk-taking. Documentary will only keep its social and cultural currency if we equitably nurture and fund the previous undervalued and marginalized artists. And the field itself may become a battleground for documentary class warfare if the widening nonfiction income inequality persists, leaving behind more storytellers than the industry sustains.

I’m convinced that we as an organization, a field and an industry can rally around these three pillars in a way that serves our common interests and honors the inherent power of nonfiction filmmakers. Only then can a new ecosystem be shaped that is enlightened and enriched by stories from all, and not just by some.

With gratitude,

Rick Pérez
IDA Executive Director