August 14, 2007

Backstory: Young IDA and her Radical Roots

The story of how I came to start IDA is sort of a roundabout one, so you may want to grab a cup of tea and we'll start at the very beginning...

When I applied as a graduate student in TV news and documentary at UCLA in 1967, the only reason I got in was because a former nun named Christine Foster--who later became a documentary executive, network VP and then an agent--stood up to and shamed the head of the department, who had said that there was no point admitting women because there were no jobs for women in the field. 

When I graduated from UCLA, masters of journalism in hand, I found a job as director of research at a documentary production company that was willing to hire women as secretaries and researchers but not as producers. Even brilliant, talented documentarians like Joan Owens, Lynne Littman and Freida Lee Mock were only allowed to be associate producers.

Now, remember that this was the 1960s; we weren't going to accept these things without a fight. I went to consciousness raising meetings at the National Organization for Women, and that's where I got the idea that when things weren't fair, people could band together and do something about it. And within just a few years the ceilings in both news and documentary began to rise dramatically.

While working at the documentary company, I met my husband Larry, who was an assistant editor. We were married in a lovely hippy wedding in 1971 catered by documentarian Sascha Schneider. Then we went to work for Jacques Cousteau's documentary company--a wonderful experience but, for me, same ceiling, different accent. The only woman on the Calypso was Mme. Cousteau.

It was the 1970s, so I decided to go back to school to become a psychotherapist, a field that had fewer ceilings for women. And Larry decided to join me. When we graduated, we formed Main Street Counseling in Venice with a few colleagues, including Sally Landsburg, the former wife of documentarian Alan Landsburg, and Schneider, who became a licensed therapist while continuing his production career.

In 1981 we were lured back into documentary by Tom Horton, who had worked as executive in charge of production at Cousteau's film company. Would we like to go to New Zealand to work on a doc about Sir Edmund Hillary? Of course we said yes. Before we left, I said to Larry, "Well, if we're going back into documentary, we should join the professional organization of documentary filmmakers." "Is there one?" he asked.  "Oh, I'm sure there must be," I confidently replied.

I did some research, and of course failed to turn up a documentary association. 

 ‘Well, I want to join, so I'd better start one," I said to Larry. 

Larry signed on as the first IDA recruit, with his trusty Apple II E. He was transitioning into work as a computer programmer and consultant, and agreed to be our treasurer and mailing list coordinator as well as a Board Member.

We met our next recruit at a party at Sally's house. Niki Lapenieks, widow of legendary documentary cameraman Vilis Lapenieks, was there, and she immediately joined on to this new organization that barely had a name. Niki raised our first substantial money by talking her friend Kristin Caperton into donating $1,000, then talked artist Hank Chew into designing the IDA logo. She catered IDA events and recruited Michael Donaldson to be our attorney; he, in turn, went on to become an IDA president. Niki herself served for many years on the IDA Board.

By early 1982 we were ready to invite people to our first public meeting. Ben Bennett, the "slumlord" at the Production Center on Robert Boulevard in LA, agreed to let us hold it in the cafeteria. I then placed an ad in Daily Variety that invited documentary filmmakers to the charter meeting of a new organization called the International Documentary Association (I got to call it that, as I was Canadian!). 

And I sent out a letter of invitation to every documentarian I could find. Here's what it said, in part: "It's about time there was an organization just for us. An organization whose sole purpose is ‘to 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.'"

 "It's about time for ideas like...a prestigious yearly nonfiction film and video festival where the winners clutch ‘IDA' statuettes honoring their achievement...special career awards for outstanding contributors to the documentary and nonfiction media...a new magazine that will express our concerns and bring us together..."

 "It's about time for you to put your two cents in! Please attend the first meeting of the new INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY ASSOCIATION at 10 a.m. on Saturday Feb. 6 at IDA headquarters in The Production Center..."

Seventy-five people showed up at that first meeting, including TV producer David L. Wolper. I asked everyone there, in my best psychotherapist manner, "If an organization existed to serve the needs of documentary people like you, what would you like it to do for you?" We came up with an agenda that has kept IDA busy for the last 25 years.

At our second meeting, we got radical. When we heard how documentarian Nigel Nobel had been treated like a nobody by the press after winning an Oscar for best short doc, we swore, "Never again!" and got to work to overcome documentary's "stepchild" status in the film industry--a job IDA's still working on, of course.

I served as IDA's first president and executive director for the first four years of her life. We started the IDA Oscar reception in 1983 and, later, under Harrison Engle's guidance, IDA's own awards. We published the first issues of DOCO (that's what they called docs in New Zealand), a two-page newsletter than has evolved into the Documentary you are now reading. We held the first DocuDay screenings at USC in 1983, thanks to Mitchell Block, and Niki arranged for Mayor Tom Bradley to declare April 9, 1983 as "Documentary Day" in LA. We honored documentarians like Les Blank and John Huston. We got our first significant press coverage and became a respected film community organization.

I'd love to be able to thank everyone who pitched in during those early years, but there probably isn't room in this article. But please know that you have IDA's heartfelt appreciation for all you've done, including our current president, board and staff.

But I must give special thanks to one person without whom IDA wouldn't exist today. Four years into IDA's existence, we hit a financial crisis point, as many new nonprofits do. The late and much lamented documentarian Robert Guenette took over as president, literally saving IDA's life.

But even before that, Bob was also one of IDA's earliest financial backers, and when he saw that I was pestering everyone in documentary about donating to this new organization, he replied to my request with a challenge. Knowing that David Wolper had a reputation for being, shall we say, "careful" with a penny, Bob said, "I'll give you $1 more than whatever David Wolper gives you."

I gulped, but decided to take him up on his dare, and approached David with some trepidation. David is known to be one of the world's toughest dealmakers, but as one of the most successful producers in documentary history, he is also famous for knowing a good idea when he hears one (e.g. Roots). He sensed that IDA was a winner and promptly pledged $1,000. Bob, always a gentleman of his word, wrote IDA a check for $1,001. And soon afterwards, Jack Haley Jr., Mel Stuart and organizations like Kodak and Foto-Kem joined them on our new Board of Trustees.

As I've watched IDA grow into the magnificent organization it now is, I'm so proud of what everyone has accomplished by working together to give documentary the strength and dignity it deserves. But of course, there's much more to be done. 

I'd like to ask the same question I asked at the first IDA meeting 25 years ago, but with a twist: Now that IDA has existed for 25 years, and has achieved so much, what would you like it to do for you in the next 25?

I hope that IDA will stand firm for the rights of free speech that are everywhere threatened by media consolidation and a suppressive and conservative agenda in many countries around the world, including the US. Documentary filmmakers who dare to speak truth to power need our support as they struggle to be the conscience of our planet.

I also hope that IDA will continue to be at the forefront of the media literacy movement, as more and more children in schools are routinely turning in mini-docs as well as written essays. Of course, not every person who writes an essay in school becomes a professional writer, and only the most talented of these children will become the professional documentarians of tomorrow. But I believe it will be IDA's job to help the truly extraordinary become the artists and communicators they are destined to be, and be able to make a decent living doing it. 

Documentary opens our eyes to the wonder and drama of real life. It lets us enjoy the beauty of what is and encourages and inspires us to change what must be changed. The world needs this now more than ever as we are confronted with multiple challenges to our very existence on this planet.

Here's to IDA's next 25 years! May she live long and prosper...

 

Linda Buzzell founded the IDA in 1982. She now practices psychotherapy and career counseling in Santa Barbara and Woodland Hills, California, and is the author of How to Make It in Hollywood, an entertainment industry career guide. She can be reached at lbuzzell@aol.com.

Tags: