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Rekindling the Passion: Remarks by Robert Guenette

By Robert Guenette

Having been present at the creation of the IDA in 1982, I am today not only proud and grateful at receiving this new award, but proud of the current administration and Board of the IDA for creating it. It is my hope that this award will achieve what we want all awards to achieve—that it doesn’t just become a pat on the back, which we all need and appreciate once in awhile, but that it serves to motivate and inspire others to re-commit themselves to the making of good films and videos and to live lives of service. Awards, after all, are not just about what we’ve done, but more about what we are going to do—what we need to do—in the future. Me and you, everybody in this room. We have to continually rediscover our passion for making documentaries—to make the films and videos we have to make. We have to remember why we first took up camera and sound equipment to become the eyes and ears for others, which was, for most of us, because we wanted to change the world.

Well, the world still needs changing. We have much work to do, each of us, in our documentaries and in our lives. It isn’t enough, as George Harrison said, to make dollars and earn fame. “To be happy,” he sang, “we need a happy heart,” and that—as the late Arthur Ashe said—comes not just from making a living, from what we get, but in making a life, which comes from what we give.

I’d like to take a moment here, if I might, to address two things that consume me these days. One is—tonight’s award-winners excepted—the distressing fall-off in the making of advocacy films and videos; the other is the apparent waning, in general, of the spirit of volunteerism for good causes.

With regard to the first issue, I personally lament that I spent so much of my working life not making the documentaries I wanted to make, but doing the documentaries others wanted me to make. We, as Orson Welles said, spend too much of our time trying to find funding for our work, time that could be better spent in the making of our films and videos.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of new venues to exhibit our work hasn’t necessarily improved matters. In principal, the new cable outlets have funding policies— like low licensing fees, demands for matching funds and the claiming of ownership— which have reduced us to what one former IDA Board member calls “tenant farmers.” we toil, they own. True, they do deliver us an audience, albeit a small cable audience. Once upon a time, when there were only three networks, a single showing of a documentary could command an audience of up to and over 30,000,000 viewers. I am proud of some of the network documentary specials I argued for and got produced, films that led overnight to a national response, like sending food to the hungry in Appalachia, or to vocal public clamor for civil rights action, or to a public acknowledgment that we were at war in Vietnam. I’m proud, too, of a film about the peace walks across America and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a film that ended with Russians and Americans walking hand-in-hand into a stadium outside Moscow, bearing a flame from Hiroshima, crying out for peace—a film we fortunately got on Showtime. No network would touch it, even though we had booked Santana, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor and others for the first outdoor rock concert in the Soviet Union, with all the funds going to the peace march. It deserved a wider audience.

We deserve a wider audience, an audience that at the moment only the networks can deliver. I am hoping that the IDA will address this issue and others in the near future. The networks have co-opted the air space that belongs to the American people and continue to shirk their responsibility to the public to provide time for meaningful public service broadcasting, letting PBS and cable fill that need. It is an old issue; it needs to be re-visited. We should demand access to the public airwaves, which rightfully belong to the American people.

To do that job, the IDA needs an army of volunteers, in LA and across America. Having just started another 501 (c) (3) non-profit organization – the Los Angeles Media & Education Center (LAMEC) – my colleagues and I know that the volunteers are out there. We need to reach out to them and rekindle their passion for what we do. We, the IDA—what some dismiss as “that Hollywood” documentary organization—have done this before—lobbying Congress, the FCC and even the White House, utilizing the star power we live among in this town—to help get funding for POV and ITVS. And we— and I daresay, we alone—kept the documentary Oscars® on the Academy’s national broadcast, leading, at long last, to a needed documentary branch in the Academy.* These “Hollywood” efforts have enhanced the standing of documentarians and their work everywhere.

We began the IDA back in 1982 because Linda Buzzell and other visionaries, mostly from Wolper Productions, feared documentarians were becoming an endangered species. Those of us at LAMEC started that organization because we felt that people with good hearts were also becoming an endangered species. Much of LAMEC’s work has emerged from our previous work with the IDA.

We are putting cameras into the hands of the people so they themselves can bear witness to the wounds we inflict on one another.

Like that of the documentarian, LAMEC’s work helps bring people together, helping them to recognize their problems and hopefully, to provoke them to work together to solve them.

Finally, in closing, let me repeat: I’m proud to have been part of the IDA, proud of my new association with LAMEC and very proud to have spent the evening with a roomful of men and women who steadfastly refuse to become an endangered species.

We are documentarians and humanists and we are energy; and, like energy, we are forever!


*Editor’s note—In January 1987, the Academy voted to drop the presentation of the documentary awards from the Academy Awards telecast. Guenette, then IDA President, Board member Frieda Lee Mock and Administrative Director Mary Bahny spearheaded a letter-writing campaign—taken up by IDA Trustees Jack Haley Jr., David Wolper and Mel Stuart, IDA Legal Counsel (and current President) Michael Donaldson, among many other IDA members—to the Academy Board. The campaign succeeded, and the documentary awards were reinstated in the telecast.