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Filmmakers First: A Conversation with Cara Mertes

By Tamara Krinsky

Cara Mertes recently assumed her new role as director of the Los Angeles-based Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. Mertes transitioned to Sundance from her post as executive director of American Documentary, Inc., and executive producer of the New York-based PBS documentary showcase P.O.V.

In her new position, Mertes will oversee all the initiatives of Sundance's Documentary Film Program, including the Sundance Documentary Fund, the various documentary film labs held in Utah, House of Docs programming at the Filmmaker Lodge at the Sundance Film Festival and on-going, year-round support for documentary filmmakers. Documentary caught up with Mertes on the eve of her cross-country transition.


You are about to make a very big move.

Cara Mertes: I'm about to make a very big physical move, but it's not a very big work-type move in the sense of what I'm going to be doing. It's an expansion, an extension of the kind of work I've been doing at P.O.V., though it's not a massive increase in terms of the amount of people we're going to be working with.

At P.O.V. what we've really cultivated is a very, very strong sense of what I think of as "Filmmaker First." I tend to choose and work with projects that are really about an artist trying to establish or cultivate their vision and aesthetic further. And that's the same thing that I'm going to be doing with the Sundance team. That's one of the major through-lines--if you look at my career, it has always been about focusing on artists and developing their work.


Looking back over your time at P.O.V., what are some of the pet projects that you're especially proud of?

I tend not to think about it as film-specific, but I can tell you some things that I'm particularly happy that we've been able to do over the last seven years in terms of P.O.V. as a project. I've been able to build an incredible team of people that is consistent, many of whom are artists themselves. They have come together around the mission and mandate, and really, truly believe in what we're doing as cultural workers.

Another thing I'm really happy about is a sort of curatorial sensibility that I think I've been able to achieve at P.O.V. , which has allowed people to really notice it as a showcase in a different way.

The third thing that I'm really thrilled we've been able to do is provide a much higher, much more consistent level of support for filmmakers as they come into American Documentary, working across platforms and in almost every phase in a filmmaker or film's life. When P.O.V. started it was essentially a television showcase; now it's a sort of multi-media service center for filmmakers.


Yes, one of the things you've been very forward-thinking about at P.O.V. is in using the Web to not just market a film, but to give it a whole life beyond the television broadcast.

That is has been a really important piece of what I've brought to P.O.V that I hope to bring to Sundance. I'm convinced that eventually the Web is going to bring in more viewers and more users of nonfiction than broadcast. Broadcast is foundational, it's very important, but it will be a secondary piece of how we encounter nonfiction. I believe the Web is going to be the very active, very fluid environment where we're going to be able to achieve a different order--in a way, a whole different level of connection around nonfiction work.

At Sundance, there is a lot of support for creating what I'm thinking of as a virtual corollary to a real-life lab. That's the next three-to-five years: figuring out what that Web world--that documentary world, that nonfiction world--is going to look like and feel like and act like in the context of a world community of nonfiction filmmakers that are doing very difficult work.


The core work of the two jobs sounds similar in many ways. What will be the biggest difference in your new gig?

I'll be able to work with a wider range of artists. Because they don't have to be tied to a PBS broadcast, I can be looking at the whole spectrum of people that are producing, whether they're doing so for the BBC, cable or public television. That is very freeing in a certain way.


And of course, another difference is that you're going to relocate from New York City to Los Angeles. How are you feeling about the move?

(laughing) I think it'll be interesting.

It's not going to define the kind of work that we're going to be doing in the way that you might expect, because it's a global mandate. I'll be working in Los Angeles but the work itself is not just solely tied to the LA community, in the same way that I've been working in New York and it's a very tight and active community, but that hasn't been a defining factor in terms of what we're doing at P.O.V.


So, geography isn't going to be the defining factor in what you do.

Yes. It's exciting, though, to get to know another community of nonfiction makers.

Also, the fact that the industry is centered in Hollywood--that'll be very interesting to understand the ways in which Hollywood, the feature film industry and the nonfiction industry are converging. The business side of documentary has been so explosive recently. We're seeing a little bit of settling in terms of this excitement around, "Gosh, what's the potential of documentary in a theatrical setting?" Or, "What's the potential of documentary in terms of DVD sales?" We're beginning to understand some answers to that equation.


In a way it's ironic that Robert Redford, one of the biggest movie stars of all time, created a safe haven for important cultural work.

We've got a slew of celebrities now, people that have been hugely successful in the industry, sort of attaching themselves to issues. But Robert Redford got that first. He understands that cultural work is fundamental to who we are as humans, but he's also attached that to action, to change and to the possibility of transforming the world through culture. That is what Sundance has captured over the last 25 years in a way that no other organization has. I suppose that's another really exciting thing--to be with a group of people who understand that deeply and have been doing that so well.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.