New IDA Executive Director Rick Pérez Assesses the Global Documentary Narrative
Richard Ray (“Rick”) Pérez took the helm as executive director of IDA this past May, following a six-year period of expansion, growth, impact and innovation under the leadership of Simon Kilmurry. Pérez brings to the table a 20-year career in documentary, and a tangential association with IDA throughout those two decades. As a filmmaker, he made Unprecedented: The 2020 Presidential Election with then-IDA Board Member Joan Sekler; his second feature, Cesar’s Last Fast, was a project in IDA’s Fiscal Sponsorship Program; he has moderated various panels and convenings at IDA’s biennial Getting Real conferences; and he has served on IDA Documentary Awards committees. Beyond IDA, he made his name on the executive side, as Director of Creative Partnerships at Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, where he oversaw numerous projects, both domestically and abroad, and as Director of Acquisitions and Distribution Strategies at WGBH/WORLD Channel.
Pérez comes to IDA at a pivotal time, as we slowly re-emerge from the throes of the pandemic and continue to engage in the global reckoning on racial injustice and inequities in our community. The year 2020 was epochal in so many ways, and helped spur IDA to double down on its mission and vision and dig deep into redefining its core values in order to shape an organization that truly addresses, through its rich range of programming, the needs and concerns of the community.
Documentary spoke to Pérez a few weeks into his—and IDA’s—next chapter. We discussed his love of the documentary form, the transformation of the community, and the challenges ahead in engaging a post-2020 world—and the ever-persistent provocation that IDA’s founders put into play 40 years ago: the “International” in International Documentary Association.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: You’ve been an integral part of the documentary community for 20 years—as both a filmmaker and as a nonprofit executive who has worked with hundreds of filmmakers. What is it about this field that has sustained you on a personal level?
RICK PÉREZ: I think what's driven me to stay in this field is the amazing power of nonfiction film. It is an astounding, multi-textural and ever-surprising experiential universe of stories rooted in understandings, interpretations, and curiosities of the world as it unfolds around us. I love multiple art forms, but this one has moved me in transformative ways. Documentary continues to nurture my soul and challenges me to try to make sense or understand the souls of people in this world.
D: What about the community itself? What have you found to be most transformative within the community over the last 20 years?
RP: One of the great things about the community is that there are now growing centers of influence. Ten to 15 years ago, you had a limited number of organizations who distributed most of the field’s resources and exerted curatorial power and influence. But the rise of collectives like Brown Girls Doc Mafia, A-Doc and Undocumented Filmmakers Collective tells us that there are new participants that are joining the conversation. I hope this results in a new distribution and alignment of power and influence in the field. Their emergence is particularly inspiring.
It’s gonna be interesting to see how we make sense of the last year and a half, coming out of the devastation of the global pandemic and trying to harness the positive momentum of the racial justice movements. I’m eager to see how our field moves forward, not so much in the short-term—there's a lot of promising activity around how we're processing these societal crises—but to ensure we’re at the beginning of longer-term cultural shifts that address the underlying inequities that manifest themselves in our society and in the nonfiction film industry. What does that look like? Collectively as a field, how can we respond to what’s convulsed before us? How can we co-vision, co-create and operate an equitable nonfiction film industry across all subsectors of the field? And with these emerging and moving cores of influence, how are we gonna shape that long-term conversation?
It’s no secret how resources have been allocated within the various sectors of the documentary field, the commercial sector and the nonprofit sector; we're acutely aware of the disparity. What will that look like in two years, five years, ten years? The worst-case scenario is that we go back to a sort of default, which is a real possibility. A scenario where there’s an “A-list” or a “one percent” and there’s everyone else trying to access the resources to break the cycle of nonfiction film poverty.
D: Alluding to your previous tenures—at WGBH and Sundance—what were the most valuable takeaways you had from your experiences there that you feel will serve you the best in your new position here?
RP: There were a couple of big takeaways from Sundance. Before I started as a staffer, I was a Sundance-supported artist. I had gotten a grant, and had gone through two of their labs. It was wonderful to see how transformative support from a high-level institution like Sundance was for me, how it made me a better filmmaker and a better storyteller. Frankly, I got some of the best creative support that any filmmaker in our field could get.
And then working as a senior staffer, I witnessed the process for selecting who gets that experience. It was like experiencing life on both sides of the fence—first, as the hungry filmmaker, then having the pearly gates open and accessing privilege.
But the resources for that type of support are finite, and the processes for deciding who gets entry into that sphere are imperfect. On top of that, there are multiple influences in the decision processes.
My experience at WGBH was altogether different. I worked specifically at World Channel, a multicast channel run by WGBH that operates in a unique way within the public media sector. What I learned there is how under-resourced World Channel is. This is concerning because the vision that the general manager, Liz Cheng, and editorial manager, Chris Hastings, have for the channel is to reach a younger, multicultural audience whose voices reflect the lived experiences of more diverse audiences. The mandate is forward-thinking, but the investment doesn’t feel like it’s a priority for the system. As it is, there are films within the public television system that don’t find distribution platforms. Many are finding homes on WORLD Channel, and that is wonderful. But it was disheartening to see how the licensing and acquisition fees undervalued the work and the efforts of the filmmakers. It’s troubling when you think that many of these filmmakers are artists of color. The consequences are akin to perpetuating a documentary economy of poverty.
D: You’ve been involved in IDA in many iterations—as a longtime IDA member, as a fiscal sponsorship participant, and as a Getting Real convener and moderator. So you have that perspective that’s not quite inside, but you know us pretty well. And you’ve seen us grow. Over the past six years, what has been the most inspiring for you as far as the transformations that IDA have undergone?
RP: One specific area is direct funding to filmmakers. So often, grants can be pretty small when compared with the overall budgets it takes to make a film. Filmmakers raise $10,000 here, $20,000 here, maybe $50,000 there but the Enterprise Fund is a big grant. I hope other funders who have the ability to make larger grants can follow that model.
And there's a genuine building of community—a non-exclusive community—that is very democratic in that we serve all filmmakers. And at least from the outside, I've never felt that there was a threshold of qualifying, either through experience level or through curatorial approval. I always felt that we're here for everyone. And because it's so hard to make films, there are filmmakers who really need to be cared for, and not always feel like they don't have the membership dues. Now, granted, we need members. We want to concretely represent people. That's what I've always been most impressed with: We're really here for everyone.
D: We alluded to the year 2020 as probably one of the most consequential and tragic years that any of us have ever experienced. Across the artistic disciplines, the media arts fared the best as far as delivering programming online. What do you feel we did right in looking at the strictures of the pandemic and turning them into opportunities?
RP: One of the good fortunes, just about the nature of contemporary storytelling, is that there is a digital component built into its DNA. So just already in terms of reaching audiences, that's part of the process of filmmaking—streaming and sharing videos, whether with our friends on our personal video accounts or through distribution. So I think it was easy for us to respond to the need to connect with filmmakers and communities in our field, and for film festivals to adapt to not being able to have in-person gatherings. It also forced us to rethink how we reach people for educational programs. Suddenly geography is no longer a barrier to access and attendance. We’re already seeing hybrid in-person/online events emerging. While they’re no substitute for proximate human interaction, they are great ways to connect with events and audiences, especially when limited budgets, both personal and organizational, can’t accommodate travel expenses.
I think we were very fortunate in that respect. Storytellers, particularly independent documentarians, have always been resourceful and possessed a “by any means necessary” spirit that allowed the community to pivot quickly. In the storytelling realm, sometimes a story or story thread emerges in a project that you're working on, and you have to pivot and go with it. So I'm not surprised that, particularly in independent documentary, IDA and other organizations did this pivoting very well.
One of the areas where independent filmmakers don't always fare well is fiscal management. But we had the benefit of having Simon at the helm. He was really able to respond to the pandemic and come up with ways by which we could continue to survive and still meet the needs of our filmmakers who themselves are going through upheaval, and not only because of the economy. All of a sudden, they couldn’t go and shoot the films they were making. I think there were those two factors—responding to the moment and already being in a fiscally sound position to be able to respond. That’s why we survived and thrived, and made sure others did too.
D: And as we slowly re-emerge from the COVID period, on reflection, there were a lot of cost efficiencies. We were able to reach a global audience relatively easily, and we were able to deliver programming on a global scale. How do we retain the best of what we were able to manage in the pandemic?
RP: Even as we start meeting in person, the reality is that all events now will probably be hybrid events. And for a couple of reasons. Yes, there's the cost efficiency, there's accessibility, geographic accessibility. But one of the most wonderful outcomes is that we are able to reach people all over the world, and we are able to reach people without having to travel.
We're more thoughtful about seizing this moment to build audiences. I don't want this to be a substitute for in-person contact even if the cost efficiency is seductive. It's not gonna serve the organization or the field if we use it as an excuse not to travel to either under-resourced filmmaking communities here in the States or internationally. So on one hand, it's great that we got a lot of international participation for Getting Real. I think that is step one to laying the groundwork for a more robust international engagement, for genuine collaboration and co-visioning in places we may not have typically gone to. So it's a great opportunity, but it also points to where we can really have effective in-person experiences.
D: I want to address the ongoing reckoning on systemic racism that so many organizations in the media arts and the nonprofit sectors at large have undergone. From your perspective outside of IDA, what were we doing right in addressing systemic racism in the community, and what do we and our peers need to be doing better?
RP: From the outside it's easy to imagine, albeit incorrectly, that Simon's departure is related to this moment and the need for historically white-led organizations to provide high-level leadership opportunities for professionals of color. For the record, Simon’s departure was not related to pressure or optics. But he certainly recognized that there was a need for more leaders of color to have opportunities to lead organizations like IDA. So there’s a very positive consequence tied to Simon deciding he’s led the organization through challenging times, set IDA on solid financial and programmatic footing, and is ready to do something else. And he is certainly aware of this timing and recognizes the opportunity he has facilitated.
Apart from this, over the years, like many people of color, I had become cynical. This extended to a recent period when many organizations started to scramble to find new leadership of color in response to the social unrest that followed the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless people of color at the hands of the police. Organizations also started to reimagine the make-ups of their boards. But I had been saying that our field had a problem even before this sense of urgency arose. In the most polite terms, there was clearly “systemic bias” in our field. In more critical terms, there appeared to be a curatorial “in-clique” rallying around films and filmmakers they christened as “cool,” subjecting colleagues and peers, usually people of color, to a bias of low expectations. This, of course, was and is an industry-wide problem. It literally took rioting in the street for some colleagues and organizations to realize that they have to stop only hiring, promoting and nurturing the careers of white professionals in the field. Of course it’s still going to happen. But entrenched systems of bias, discrimination and especially racism are hard to change.
But I want to be clear: These biases are not always racism, but our judgments about capacity, capability, talent, aesthetics, and the worth of specific stories have consequences. The cumulative effect is narrative inequity. I certainly experienced judgments of my talent and potential. When I was bussed to a predominately white school in Los Angeles, my teachers expected little from me. I recall being the only Latino student in an honors English class, and the head counselor chose me as the first student to remove from the class because it was overcrowded. He scanned the room. His eyes settled on my brown face. Then he pointed his finger at me and ordered me to leave the class with him.
Then, as a Mexican-American trying to raise funds for a film about Cesar Chavez, it was tempting to attach a storyline around the continual avalanche of unsuccessful grant proposals and efforts to raise funds to make the film. But on the positive side, we appear to be experiencing an awakening. I hope this awakening is part of a long-term enlightenment.
But how do we harness this moment? How do we ensure we are a forever-changed society? Unless we seize this moment, examine, self-examine and invest in cultural practices, we slide back to a default set of behaviors that reinforce narrative inequity.
D: That said, as far as IDA’s role in this conversation, this moment, what are the challenges moving forward and how can we improve and make a bigger difference in whatever role we play?
RP: I come to this from my experience as a filmmaker and as someone working at some premiere institutions in the field. So from my perspective, establishing a more equitable nonfiction film industry is one of the biggest challenges I see for IDA. But what is an equitable field? That can be interpreted as a trite generalization. So as I embark on addressing this challenge, the IDA leadership team and I have to tap into the field research to more accurately identify specific challenges and actionable solutions. I want to be careful that as IDA moves forward, we do so in a responsive and intelligent way, one that addresses the larger disparities and structural inequities.
I used to think that nonfiction and documentary filmmaking were voluntary endeavors—practices of privilege that few could afford to pursue. But I was wrong. I realize documentary filmmaking is a cultural necessity. Increasingly, our societies are informed and influenced by nonfiction film. If we cede this practice to a privileged caste, we enable a de facto distorted nonfiction global narrative.
One area I’m excited about is engaging and collaborating with the streamers in the commercial sector. Of course many of them are already IDA partners and supporters. I’m looking forward to building on the relationships Simon cultivated and nurtured. They are critical partners in imagining and supporting the work necessary for a more equitable documentary industry at home and abroad, and they possess knowledge and have a skill set that IDA, as a nonprofit, can learn from. I’d like to learn what they see as the primary challenges in the field. I’d love to hear their take on what a more equitable industry looks like and how we can get there. The multiple social crises of the last year-and-a-half must have had a profound impact on how they work, how they make decisions, how they’d like to re-prioritize their investment in storytellers and distribute their resources. There’s so much wisdom to be gained in the events of the last 18 months. I hope it’s clear that nonfiction film is in dialogue with societies and the impact, influence and outcome of the work can have positive or negative effects. Sometimes, the effects are clear and sometimes, they’re subtle. But they are always profound, whether obvious or not.
We're at a moment. We can look back 10 or 20 years from now and say, ‘Wow, we came together and we cooperated in the spirit of transformation and we tapped into some of the best minds and thinkers across the nonprofit and commercial sector in that moment and we shared and we helped shape this.’
There is an analogy I heard in another field and it had to do with the application of the telescope by astronomers.
Somebody decided to take the telescope and point it at a celestial body. And they were of course blown away by the amount of information and detail they saw. Another astronomer came by and he had the idea of taking another telescope and positioning it somewhere else geographically and pointing it at that same celestial body. So there are now two different telescopes. What they discovered is that, together, they got more than twice the amount of information and more detail.
If we think of the global narrative as that celestial body, we've largely been seeing it through one telescope. There are cumulative consequences—sometimes subtle, sometimes profound—of having only one telescope. The global narrative becomes distorted and by the time we realize it, it's too late. How can we foster and build upon and grow more knowledge and more accurate representation of stories and lives, etc. through that other telescope? I'm trying, in a high metaphorical way, to ensure equality among the telescopes for a better, accurate, more representative expression of the nonfiction narrative.
D: Touching on that metaphor, one challenge in IDA’s 40-year existence has been living up to the “I,” for “International,” in IDA. The founders threw that down as a challenge for subsequent generations to tackle. How would we continue to reinforce the I in IDA?
RP: I look forward to growing IDA’s support for international filmmakers. I’m particularly interested in fostering a global documentary community that empowers filmmakers, organizations and advocates from the Global South. As a field, we’ve become aware of the colonial gaze endemic to our practice. The big question now is, How do we invest in systems and processes that dismantle that legacy and help build vibrant, resourced storytelling communities driven by native traditions and aesthetics? How do we fully embrace and integrate international communities and raise their prominence in the field?
At Sundance Institute I had the good fortune of working with filmmakers from, and organizations in, China, Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Latin America. There are distinct challenges in each of the regions. IDA’s initial work will be to develop a process of collaboration with makers and organizations in these regions. Some of this work has already begun via listening sessions that are part of developing our advocacy program. As we proceed, however, we have to be careful to avoid a neo-colonial approach. We’ll have to ask ourselves tough questions like, “Who defines the terms of success?” and “Who and what is ‘measured’ and by whom?”
And that's a challenge because in general, Americans are America-centric people. We don't necessarily consume a lot of international films. We have kind of a disproportionate cultural and economic impact. We export a lot of art and culture abroad and very little comes back. And it's part of a cycle, a complex currents of culture and art and story. It would be neglectful not to foster regional storytelling communities, because our mission is international.
D: Along those lines, how would you define a positive brand of diplomacy?
RP: Certainly, we want to avoid any cultural colonial model like “This is how you do it. We're here to help.” It's really about listening and ultimately inspiring the communities and leaders and organizations to drive the conversation. And that's hard because there's always the power dynamic between a resourced organization—and it's not like IDA has infinite resources—and under-resourced collaborators or constituents. So we have to be sensitive and respectful about how we engage ethically, constructively, respectfully, collaboratively. We have to co-vision and co-create. But ultimately it’s about empowerment so that international communities of filmmakers drive their own representation and maintain control of their narrative future.
Tom White is Editor of Documentary magazine.