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Despite Recent Challenges, Docs Are More Vital Than Ever

By Lisa Leeman

I’ve been an IDA member for a fifteen years, sat on the board for nine of them, and served as president in 1996. Looking back at the documentary world during that time could give you a case of whiplash.

One of the biggest changes since then is that digital video has become pervasive. Small cameras, affordable and unobtrusive, are making documentary filmmaking a possibility for those who rarely had access to making media in the past. I realized digital video was here to stay when I saw some of the pioneers of cinéma vérité—Bob Drew, Ricky Leacock, Al Maysles and DA Pennebaker among them—fall in love with the format.

Funding is tighter and more competitive. But distribution feels more plentiful. PBS airs half a dozen doc strands, and P.O.V., now in its 15th year, is still going strong (still, I wish they had more than 13 slots per year). HBO’s Sheila Nevins engineered a programming coup by scheduling the iconoclastic doc series America Undercover on Sunday nights, immediately following the highly rated Sopranos and Six Feet Under. The Sundance Channel, IFC, Oxygen and Lifetime are all programming and sometimes commissioning documentary work. Even more traditional channels have warmed a bit to indie documentaries: A&E co-produced the Oscar-nominated The Farm, while Discovery Health picked up Close to Home, a sobering doc on child abuse.

The Sundance Film Festival, always an effective showcase for documentaries, boosted its support by launching the House of Docs in 2000. This year Robert Redford announced plans to launch the Sundance Documentary Channel, and Sundance is exploring how to adapt its successful fiction filmmaking lab for documentarians.

On the awards front, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences formed an official Documentary Branch in 2001, which now rightfully requires that only documentarian academy members nominate eligible docs for the Oscar.

Documentaries also seem to be getting more recognition at film festivals. As I write this, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine is the first doc to screen in competition at Cannes in 46 years. And there are more festivals, markets and conferences devoted to docs around the world than ever before, not to mention the growing number of pitch sessions at these venues. Both the IDA and the EDN (European Documentary Network) can boast members from over 50 countries. That number will surely grow, as the wave of the future (the present, really) is in international co-productions. See the article in this issue on Steps for the Future, a meta-co-production about the AIDS pandemic in Southern Africa. I look forward to more connection and cross-fertilization among the international doc community. The Internet is proving to be a connective force for documentary; in addition to being an extraordinary research tool, the ’net is building communities within the documentary world—on websites like IDA’s;;;,, and many more.

Over the last decade, we’ve seen video diaries, docu-soaps, mock-docs, shock docs, rock-docs and road-u-mentaries, not to mention a plethora of synonyms like “reality TV,” “actuality TV” and “nonfiction programming.” We’ve come from Nanook of the North through Triumph of the Will to An American Family to The Osbournes. I’m not sure if that’s evolution or de-evolution, but I do know that the documentary feels more vital than ever. As a filmmaker, professor, IDA Mentor and frequent consultant to documentarians, I am consistently surprised and delighted by the scores of good ideas and by the passion of the filmmakers I meet.

Lest I paint too rosy a picture, documentarians (actualitarians? Reality makers?) still face many challenges: a highly competitive funding environment ; diminishing television budgets and licensing fees; the growth of reality TV, diminishing our audiences; the “bland-ization” of programs by global media conglomerates; the increased difficulty to sell “one-off” docs; and the change of the international television market to a more tiered and less remunerative structure (see IDA Trustee Jan Rofekamp’s report at

And it is deeply troubling that a major cablecaster announced plans in April to eliminate—or sharply attenuate—end credits, in an attempt to retain channel-surfing viewers. This is insulting and can be injurious to the creative team, archival suppliers and funders, all of whom contribute to or support doc programs in spite of diminishing budgets, often in exchange for their credit. The creators and collaborators of artistic work deserve to be credited, as do supporters of our programs. And audiences deserve to know this information as well. That’s simply media literacy. At this writing, a broad and passionate coalition has sprung up to reverse the disturbing trend to speed up, shrink or eliminate credits.

Our challenges as documentarians? Make a living, but also make work that matters: Introduce us to people and cultures we wouldn’t otherwise meet; present passionate points of view; open people’s hearts and minds; tell the stories lurking in our souls. Patricio Guzman has said, “A country without documentaries is like a family without a photo album.” They help us to understand where we came from, who we are, and where we are headed. Keep filling up those cinematic family albums…

Lisa Leeman produces, directs, and writes documentaries. She’s currently directing a documentary about holocaust survivor families, and is developing a doc about visionary environmentalists.