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The Origins of the IDA: Organization Founded to Promote, Support and Celebrate the Documentary

By Linda Buzzell

Pare Lorentz, the first IDA Career Achievement Award Honoree, 1985.

Can you believe it's been 20 years? Well, for me it's actually 21. Twenty-one years ago my husband Larry and I were practicing psychotherapists (having formerly worked in documentary for David Wolper and Jacques Cousteau), and we were lured back into "the biz" by fellow Cousteau veteran Tom Horton. "Would we like to go to New Zealand and work on a doc about Sir Edmund Hillary?" he asked.

We agonized, but of course we said yes. And now that we were back in "the biz," however temporarily, I thought it would be great to join the professional association for documentarians, so we could get back in touch with all our old friends and meet new ones.

One problem: no such organization existed at that time. While we were in New Zealand, I pondered this problem. Well, if I wanted to join a documentary association, I would probably have to start one! When we returned to the US after our two-month sojourn, I got to work. I noodled around with names. I ran up a few flyers and handed them out at NATPE, but "Join the New Nonfiction Video Association!" didn't seem to light any fires. At fellow therapist Sally Landsburg's house (she had been married to documentarian Alan Landsburg for many years), we chatted with Niki Lapenieks, widow of legendary Latvian documentary cameraman Vilis Lapenieks. She joined the team!

In January of 1982, I placed a small classified ad in the trades that read: "DOCUMENTARY FILM AND VIDEO MAKERS. Attend the charter meeting of the new INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY ASSOCIATION (IDA), the first organization to honor and promote nonfiction product exclusively. SATURDAY, Feb 6, 10 a.m. at Assn. Office, Production Center, 8489 W. Third St., LA, CA 90048. Corner 3rd and La Cienega. Or call founder Linda Buzzell (213) 396-3920 or (213) 655-7089." We had no idea if anyone would show up.

The fabulous "slumlord" Ben Bennett allowed us to use the Production Center cafeteria, and much to our amazement, 75 people showed up for that first meeting on February 6, 1982—including David Wolper! The question I put to this group was: "If an organization existed to serve the needs of documentary people like you, what would you want it to do?" The agenda that emerged from that first meeting has kept IDA busy for 20 years.

IDA's mission was clear: "To promote nonfiction film and video, to encourage and celebrate the documentary arts and sciences, and to support the efforts of nonfiction film and video makers all over the world." No one could say we were thinking small!

Of course, there were people who told me I was nuts to think we could get documentarians—a notoriously independent breed—to work together to resurrect interest in the supposedly terminally ill documentary. Some advised against using the d-word itself in our name. "The kiss of death," they said. Others claimed documentary was a hopelessly moribund art form, too boring for modern viewers. Years later, Discovery Channel founder John Hendricks and I were seated next to each other at an IDA event, and we had a good laugh over these 1982 naysayers. John, too, had been told that year that there was no cable audience for documentary!

But journalists believed in our mission from the very beginning. Variety's David Bergmann wrote a rousing story on April 8, 1982, entitled "IDA Has Mission: Save Documentaries." The article mentioned that we already had "50 members" and helped us bring in more.

At our second meeting on April 17, 1982, we heard the sad story about how Nigel Nobel, after winning an Oscar® for best short-subject documentary in 1981 for Close Harmony, was ignored by the press while his celebrity presenters Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss were interviewed. "Never again!" cried those in attendance at the meeting, and the Oscar® party was born so that we could stop being second-class citizens in filmtown by honoring our own. The Crystal Room at the Beverly Hills Hotel was the venue for that first event in April 1983, and the late Jack Haley, Jr.was our charming host, and continued to be over many years. The first four years of IDA's life went by like a whirlwind for me. I served as both President and Executive Director for those years, which meant that until we got rolling, recruited more people and raised more money, I was chief cook and bottle washer. I started the first IDA newsletter—a xeroxed two page flyer!—which I infelicitously named "DOCO," which is what docs were called in New Zealand. Soon editor Linda Cirigliano, a professional journalist, took over that task and things improved considerably (and later Audrey Coleman, Sandy Northrop and Denise Bigio moved it further forward towards its present prestigious incarnation). More help was on the way. So many people pitched in that it's impossible to thank them all. Larry, who had fallen in love with computers in 1982, handled all the computer and financial stuff (we were on the revolutionary Apple II E!), so we had a printable mailing list and official looking budgets. Niki raised our first substantial money, asking her friend, the late Kristin Caperton, for the princely sum of $1,000! She also convinced attorney Michael Donaldson to take over our legal issues from our first lawyer Brian Gunshor, who made fabulous caviar sandwiches for our events and talked artist Hank Chu into designing the IDA logo! And she had Mayor Bradley declare April 9, 1983, "Documentary Day" to honor the IDA and its first party for the Oscar® documentary nominees.

Fundraising for a brand-new, untried media arts organization was an ongoing challenge. Producer Robert Guenette was an early IDA convert, and he gave me a wickedly impish challenge: if I could talk our former employer David Wolper into giving a substantial donation, he promised to give $1 more than David did! Well, of course, David came through for us with a wonderful $1,000 donation, and Bob, being the gentleman that he is, coughed up $1,001 without a whimper. Soon they were joined by other "Patrons" (later called Trustees) like Alan Landsburg, Jack Haley, Jr. and Linda Grinberg.

Writer Audrey Coleman came up with the name for DocuDay, a screening of the Oscar®-nominated films to supplement the Oscar® party festivities, and professor/distributor Mitchell Block arranged for it to be held at USC.

In January 1983 Larry, Niki and I were joined on the Board of Directors by producer Dave Bell, Audrey Coleman, Linda Grinberg (head of the Sherman Grinberg Film Libraries), Robert Guenette, Jack Haley, Jr., writer/director/producer William Kronick, post-production maven Larry Nieman, writer/director/producer Irwin Rosten, editor David Saxon, attorney Brian Gunshor and David Wolper.

By September 1983, we were all hard at work trying to rescue the doc from insult and oblivion. And we began to make an impact. Michael London wrote an article about IDA for the Los Angeles Times subtitled "Stepchildren No More?" But it wasn't all work, of course. We had some wonderful times in those early years, making things up as we went along. Patricia Colvig organized our funky "Hot Peppers, Red Beans & Rice" event in Topanga Canyon, honoring documentarian Les Blank. Paula Lee Haller, soon to join the Board of Directors, threw herself into all of our activities and kept us laughing and having fun. Harrison Engle recruited Kodak support and started the IDA Awards. Gabor Kalman created the David L. Wolper Student Documentary Awards. Alan Landsburg hosted a glamorous event, "A Day at the Beach," at his Malibu pad in honor of John Huston's WWII documentaries, and both Huston and daughter Angelica attended, accompanied by Burgess Meredith. We honored "making of" docs, with a Vestron Video screening of Making Michael Jackson's 'Thriller.' We held a Christmas party in a vacant Hollywood mansion to help documentarians "schmooze."

By 1986 we were growing at a tremendous rate, but were suffering the nonprofit blues: we were running out of money. My exhilarating, but exhausting, four-year stint as president ended Dec. 31, 1985, and Bob Guenette, being the experienced and enthusiastic entrepreneur that he is, agreed to take over the reins. He really saved us, getting us back on track financially and bringing exciting new leadership to IDA. And a series of excellent presidents followed—Chuck Workman, Harrison Engle, Jon Wilkman, Mel Stuart—each bringing new ideas to the organization.

The office of Executive Director evolved as well. Documentarian Gail Willumsen joined me in our cramped Production Center office as a UCLA intern, bringing new production skills to our organizational efforts. Later, Mary Bahny Frederick became Executive Director.

I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. So many people deserve credit for building IDA from a mere idea to the important organization it is today. I have to apologize to everyone I haven't had space to mention in this article, and give special thanks to all who lent a helping hand during those fragile early stages of our existence— as well as those who have helped IDA grow and thrive over the last 20 years. IDA wouldn't have survived without you! The world of documentary owes you a tremendous debt of gratitude for two decades of progress, and I know that there are many more good things to come. Indeed, we are "stepchildren no more!"