Documentary's Most Passionate Advocate: Diane Weyermann Remembered
By Tom White
Diane Weyermann left us last week, but what she left behind—a staggering body of work that she oversaw, that has transformed the conversations on so many social issues; a formidable documentary program at Sundance; the preeminence of Participant Media as an impact strategist—has inspired the community to share their memories of her, and express their gratitude for her indefatigable fusion of passion, wisdom, verve and kindness that she brought to the hundreds of films and filmmakers she worked with. Diane traveled many thousands of miles in her career, seeking out the next wave of heartbreaking, mind-expanding stories and shepherding them through the long process to completion. She was working right up to the end, her energy flagging, but her ever-full plate of projects and dreams driving her spirit and will.
We reached out to a selection of her many friends and colleagues to offer their reflections and their thanks. Unbeknownst to us, IndieWire had undertaken the same endeavor, so we share a few respondents. We are grateful to Anne Thompson and her team at IndieWire for allowing us to republish different versions of these reflections, which we have noted below.
There are no words to express the heartbreak I feel about Diane’s passing. And yet, there are not enough words. She was a fearless, loving, brilliant, and compassionate champion of documentary filmmakers. I was privileged to be an advisor at the very first Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab in 2004, which she created, curated and choreographed. I didn’t know her then, and I had no idea what work or commitment this lab involved. I certainly never imagined that it would be a transformative experience that would change my life and stay with me forever. Even though few of us knew each other, the pairings and partnerships between advisors and fellows were all perfect. The daily sessions were productive, inspiring and fruitful, all guided by Diane’s sensitivity, intelligence, and genuine knowledge of each project. We all worked together to nurture and strengthen each film, and to ensure that the filmmakers would leave the Lab renewed, inspired, and encouraged to take their films out into the world. And by the end of the week, many of us had bonded for life.
I loved working with Diane on new projects when she moved on to Participant Media. She was the kind of executive producer that you actually welcomed into the editing room! Her insight and wisdom always made every film better. I have saved a message from her on my answering machine from the last film we worked on together. It’s so loving and encouraging that I play it whenever I need cheering up. And as I have continued to participate in the Sundance Lab over the years, I am always grateful to Diane for that gift.
Diane and I worked together on my first feature documentary, Darfur Now, and were in the midst of bringing out another, ¡Viva Maestro!, when she passed away. Her death in the absolute prime of life—and imagining our lesser world without her—is still a shock. She and I first met in May 2006 at the Participant offices; I'd come to pitch the idea for what became Darfur Now. She said yes that day; she was the first executive to do so.
Since then she remained, in spirit and fact, an enormously affirmative person in my life, in the films we worked on together, and in the community of filmmakers we shared. One of my mentors used to say that filmmakers need to have the right sort of inferiority complex—a mix of the humility to be eternally curious, the willingness to reconsider treasured artistic and social assumptions, and the preposterous confidence to imagine that a story you want to tell will bring people to screens around the world. Diane understood all that. And had the imagination, flexibility, and muscle to do something about it. She'd fight to protect your work, surround the film with the best possible support and collaborators—and challenge you with unflinching candor to do better. She invited and earned your trust. Throughout she maintained the rare capacity to see that the goal was always to get the film to realize its fullest potential—not just in and of itself, but out there in the world. She did so with a unique, bracing clarity and a strangely unquenchable hope. In the process she transferred all her affirmative energy and vitality into work that changed the planet and woke us up to being human.
Filmmaker (Darfur Now; ¡Viva Maestro!)
Diane was a force of nature. I feel an uneasy stillness now that she’s gone.
So I read all my emails with Diane going back to 2006.
What I found remarkable was the way she was in perpetual motion. Seminars, festivals, cutting rooms, meetings. NY, Amsterdam, Berlin, Park City, Venice, LA, NY. Even within cities, her schedules had to be plotted by the minute.
"I have a mtg until 5:30pm and a dinner but not sure of time/place//Let me know what's easy for you. I'll be coming from a meeting around the Flatiron and dinner probably at 7/7:30 in that same area. But I can come cross town…
Will try you soon. My phone has been fixed. It stopped working of course if there middle of
IDFA! In Berlin now…
I am in Amsterdam and it's 3am so I won't call now but am dying to know what this was about. If you can't put in email I will try you tomorrow. But if you can email.. let me know…"
When we got together, there was always time for a margarita. And chit chat. About docs. About Maine. Gossip. And some business. And then, somehow, she watched every cut of every film—multiple times—on planes, on weekends, in distant hotels, in airport lounges. Her notes were always sharp (I look back and wonder why I didn’t listen to more of them) but never insistent because she wanted to support the directors who were making the films.
In looking through the emails I recall crises—always handled with calm and deliberation— coupled with a sense of joy for what she was doing. Diane was a booster rocket for every film she helped finance—and many she didn’t. I was responsible for one of the most pitiful performers in the Participant catalogue—the New York premiere was a painful whimper, as only five stragglers dropped in to the Q&A screening—but that didn’t stop her from championing the next one as if millions had seen the last.
Diane made us all better. Her smile lit up every room she entered. With the success of every film, she paid it forward to the next. With her drive, determination, fierce intelligence and generous heart, she changed the face of the documentary.
I had a two-hour lunch with Diane just after Labor Day. Whether through optimism or faith, she was convinced she was on her way back. Undimmed by disease, she gushed about new films she was lifting up. We talked about her own hopes and dreams. She had bought a house in Maine, just down the road from me. She was fixing it up with a screening room and places for visiting filmmakers to stay. She was going to spend more time there…
She never made it. Maybe all those miles she traveled for us took their toll. But her vision for that place explained a lot about who she was: precise, determined and engaged in the unpredictability of the world around her. The vista from her work perch led down through an angled lawn leading to rocks and raspberry bushes in a disappearing perspective that focused the eye on the wild waves of the Atlantic.
Filmmaker (Casino Jack and the United States of Money)
Diane was originally hired at Sundance to start an international program. Once hired she told then Executive Director Ken Brecher that what Sundance really needed was a documentary program and that he would be pleased with what she would create. He was surprised but, as he told me recently, she was so convincing and confident that he said yes. That says so much about Diane. In her powerful and cheerful way, she knew what she wanted and made it happen. In fact it always seemed to me that whatever job she had, she was always doing the same thing: supporting the most important and artful documentaries around.
Diane started at Sundance around 2002. I had started the Composers Lab two years earlier, and we thought it was a no-brainer to bring documentary filmmakers into the music program and address music as a storytelling tool for documentaries. It was all about creative play, hard work, fun and love: set up a creative plan and, for the most part, get out of the way. She was single-mindedly devoted to the field, had a discerning eye for talent, and a deep appreciation for work that pushes the boundaries of storytelling both in subject matter and form.
I have a clear memory of Diane walking into a room and people hurriedly getting out of their chairs with a big smile and running to give her a hug. Her warmth permeated. She is loved by many.
Director of Film Music, Sundance Institute
Diane was one of the most remarkable human beings I’ve ever known. It’s hard to find words that truly describe how special Diane was, but one that stands out is: ‘sparkling.’ She was not only exceptionally skilled at her craft, but was filled with empathy. She paid careful attention not just to her work but to the people with whom she worked. She looked for the best in everyone and in turn, she brought out the best in everyone. Diane was always ready with a smile, good humor, and sharp insight.
She was not only a wonderful person, she was really a genius at the work she chose to do. One of the things that awed me about her work was her ability to bring an in-depth knowledge not only of filmmaking, but of the subject matter in each of the movies she championed. In doing so, she helped change the world meaningfully — multiple times — by shining a powerful spotlight on compelling stories that provoked thoughtful action, promoted justice and ignited progress toward a better, safer and more equitable future. I will forever be grateful for her friendship and for the incredible legacy that she leaves to the world.
—Vice President Al Gore
Climate Activist; Protagonist, An Inconvenient Truth
The documentary world has lost a guiding light.
Diane was unwavering in her commitment to elevating the documentary form and its creators. I’m lucky to have been on the receiving end of her unflinching support. When pitching Food, Inc., we knew we had found a fearless advocate in Diane and a home at Participant. When she committed, she was all in. She trusted my process, even (and especially) when I was unsure. She allowed our team a lot of freedom, but never let us flail. Diane guided with a velvet glove; she wouldn't say much, but her consistently insightful contributions were immeasurable.
It can’t be said enough that Diane fought tirelessly for her directors. At an early pitch of Merchants of Doubt to an investor who wanted me to commit to exactly what the film would be when I was still exploring, Diane doubled down protectively saying, "Robby’s not sure, but we are committed. If you want to join us, great, if not, you shouldn’t take part."
Diane was fiercely intelligent, yet wonderfully modest. She had a terrific sense of humor and an encouraging smile. I am fortunate to have completed two films and launched a third with Diane in my corner. It’s painful to contemplate finishing our current film without her. We miss her deeply and hope to make a film that would have made her proud.
Filmmaker (Food, Inc.; Merchants of Doubt)
Diane would get to work early—earlier than the rest of us at the Sundance office. Always dressed in an elegant yet understated one-of-a-kind ensemble, she would plant her daily venti latte on her desk and sip it throughout the day. It was 2001 and she had landed in LA to establish the Sundance Documentary Film Program with the millions she brought along from Soros’s Open Society Foundation. This was visionary. This was badass. Few people at the time articulated as clearly as she did the power of nonfiction film to shape not only the world, but also the cinematic lexicon. Well, I was in awe. Here was this brilliant, friendly, sophisticated powerhouse who shared my passion for documentary. I knew I had a great deal to learn from her, so I (probably annoyingly) stopped by her office for a chat as often as she would have me. Her outlook and her conviction changed my world. Together we agitated to create an international documentary section at the Sundance Film Festival and, as we curated it, she generously introduced me to works that stretched my understanding and my taste—like Three Rooms of Melancholia by Pirjo Honkasalo or Wall by Simone Bitton. I now grasp just how lucky I was to be mentored for a time by Diane. How precious it was to have her as an ally. Her achievements have been startling and her impact on our field incalculable. The procession of those who love and admire her is long and colorful and deep. The last week all I can think is how much she would want to be here now. She would be rolling up her sleeves to summon forth the next monumental project, laughing loudly and taking a swig of her large latte. It is wrenching to imagine our community without her beautiful, kind, fierce presence among us.
Senior programmer, Sundance Film Festival, 2001–2019
There won’t ever be another Diane Weyermann. For 17 years she was the steward of so many of our films. In each and every project she touched, she injected her trademark brand of empathy, integrity, and an unwavering commitment to the art form of documentary filmmaking itself. There was not a story worth telling that Diane shied away from, and it was through her wisdom that the world got to experience an entire spectrum of stories that perhaps would have never been seen or heard.
From the landmark An Inconvenient Truth, which helped awaken millions of global citizens to the ravages of climate change, to American Factory and its brilliant examination of what it means to work in America today, to the upcoming The First Wave, which bravely captures the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, Diane’s ability to partner with world-class filmmakers in telling the most important stories of our time leaves an indelible legacy that cannot be matched.
But despite the heartbreak and devastation we all feel over the passing of our dear friend I am also comforted by what she has left behind. The outpouring of love and commemoration from the filmmaking community and beyond has underscored just how important Diane was and will continue to be to this work, anchored by an enduring legacy of seeking and supporting storytelling with a purpose. Diane’s very presence transformed everyone at Participant and words cannot express how much we, and the world, will miss her.
CEO, Participant Media
I never imagined I wouldn't have an opportunity to sit down and talk to Diane about the Documentary Film Program that she created at Sundance 20 years ago, and the incredible path that she paved for me and so many others.
I met Diane several times over the years, but it was always too brief and at some large and loud gathering. The first time was in 1999 at the International Film Financing Conference in San Francisco. I was a volunteer, and of course, I was in awe. In those days, the men in the industry loomed large, and it meant so much to me to watch Diane hold space. It signaled that somewhere, someday, there might be space for me too. Over the years, she touched me from afar in countless ways.
The program she imagined at Sundance is ingrained in our DNA, with steadfast support and partnership from the Open Society Foundation, which she brought to the Institute following her work at OSF.
Diane was a true leader, always ahead of the curve with a deep understanding of what the field needed and how to get it there. I only wish I could have expressed my gratitude for the indelible impact that she had on me, on our field, on filmmakers, and on the many issues that she so passionately championed. She is already deeply missed, but will continue to be an inspiration.
Director, Sundance Documentary Film Program, 2020–present
Like so many people, Diane Weyermann changed the course of my life. We were both living in New York and devoted to the power of nonfiction storytelling and storytellers. I was coming up in public media, she was moving into philanthropy. When she started the Soros Documentary Fund in 1996, it was ground-breaking for its time and had a big impact on the field; there had been very little philanthropic support for independent documentary, despite a robust pipeline and a vibrant 30 year+ history in the US.
I started making the trek to the Open Society Foundations office as often as Diane would see me. She was a mentor of the highest order, imparting an expansive international vision for bringing people together through film, and connecting documentary to human rights. When I joined POV in 1999, this helped influence the choice to evolve the series into a more international documentary platform that shed light on events and perspectives that received scant notice in US media. Diane and I funded and supported many of the same films and filmmakers through our different positions—something that continued for the next 25 years. By 2000, Diane was visioning again, breaking new ground, connecting new communities. Sundance Institute was the home for this phase. There, the fund unfurled into a multi-hyphenate—labs, a fund, panel discussions at Sundance Film Festival, and more. She created a powerful documentary film program, deeply rooted in the Sundance ethos.
By now it was clear that Diane was a singular force, leading an evolution in the documentary ecosystem. She was a commensurate field architect; an impossibly articulate, knowledgeable and passionate advocate for an artform that moved from marginal to mainstream over a few decades, in large part due to her efforts. And in 2005, after meeting Jeff Skoll and being deeply impressed with his belief in the power of storytelling, she found her best home yet, at Participant. And it is safe to say that over the years, she became the soul of that company.
There, she championed some of the most influential, complex and challenging stories —the list is long and legendary. Again and again, she defied convention and made the impossible possible. The love and appreciation she had for the courage and commitment of the storytellers she worked with came through in how she treated everyone like the most important person in the room. Elegant, fierce, determined and effortlessly generous, Diane was someone who moved an entire field forward and into its own future, and in doing so, has made the world better. When I joined Sundance to shepherd the Documentary Film Program in 2006, the choice for us to continue to keep her vision central wasn’t even a question—it was a given. She had already imprinted the core commitments: to untold stories, to courageous acts of storytelling, to dignity, to justice. These values will always be generative.
In 2011, Sundance DFP organized a 10-year anniversary celebration of the Soros Documentary Fund with a retrospective of films at Film Forum. I asked Diane to do us the honor of providing an interview for the retrospective so that we could mark the history and her remarkable contributions. Her final words in the interview say it all: "To me, it’s all cinema." The love being shown now for this special spirit is evidence of just how much she meant to a world of cinema.
Director, Sundance Documentary Film Program, 2006–2013
When we talk about the vibrant state of documentary film, we should really be talking about Diane. She had her hand in putting together so many pieces that made the success of documentaries today possible. Her taste, passion and intelligence made good things happen.
I was lucky enough to work with Diane on two films: The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble and Best of Enemies. "Work," however, isn’t the right word, since being with Diane was always such fun. She was so smart about how to tell stories and for whom we were telling them. She gave the best notes and was always your biggest cheerleader. More than anything, I will just miss a friend.
Diane was that rare soul who, reunited with a friend after even a few days’ absence, would jump up and down and giggle. She was like condensed sunlight. Each time I saw her again, she’d see me coming down a street or across a lobby, and the laughter would begin…
Her effervescence was infectious. By the time we’d embrace, I’d be laughing too. When we released The Look of Silence, Diane’s love for the protagonist—the courageous, empathic, gentle Adi Rukun—drew her into the orbit of our lives for nearly two years. She became family, and as she adopted the Indonesian human rights community’s determination to make lasting change, they became a kind of extended family to her.
I believe Diane buoyed in this way everyone who knew her. Certainly, she inspired all of us lucky enough to work with her to think—and rethink—how film might make the deepest possible impact in the hearts of the audience, on society, culture, politics. She took it for granted that to articulate our most painful truths is an act of hope (because you can’t change before you acknowledge the problem), but also an act of love (because a good friend does not mince words).
Integral to this political commitment, Diane rejoiced at cinema’s capacity for awe. Full of wonder, she helped generations of filmmakers explore, through film, truths so mysterious and delicate that you catch your breath the moment you see and hear them articulated. For Diane, this ability of cinema to insinuate itself into our dreams is powerful, for how better to make change than transform how we imagine the world and our place in it?
I visited Diane three weeks before she died. She could no longer jump up and down, but her laughter still echoes, her smile still glows, and the enthusiasm with which she described every film she was working on will nourish these films and make them brilliant. As they come out over the next few years, they will shine, bright with her ideas and passion, lighting the way forward for all of us, for decades to come.
I had the good fortune of working closely with Diane for the last 14 years, first as a producer and then as her colleague in Participant’s documentary division. She was my mentor and friend. Diane was a tireless advocate for filmmakers’ creative vision. She believed in the work as well as the people making it. She cared deeply about social justice, but just as deeply about cinema and the craft of storytelling. Diane was fierce but fun; she was serious but loved to cut loose on the dance floor. She was an incredible baker and she always used real butter. She loved music and art and travel and she had friends all over the world. Diane’s loss is a huge blow to the global documentary community and to the many people who loved her. Her legacy lives on in the films and filmmakers she supported, but she will be so deeply missed.
Filmmaker (Food, Inc.; Last Call at the Oasis);
Senior Vice President, Documentary Films, Participant Media, 2013–2020
Diane made an indelible impression on my life from the very first day she joined Participant. I was a junior creative exec there at the time, with business cards and plenty of enthusiasm, but not much to show for actual experience (or taste, for that matter). Diane, on the other hand, was already a legend in the documentary world. To say I was intimidated by her arrival and her reputation was an understatement—with no résumé to speak of, I thought she would see right through me, immediately know I was a fraud, and promptly send me packing.
If you know Diane, you know my fear was laughable. She didn’t come to wield an axe or throw her weight around; she joined with the intention of imparting her wisdom and experience. Before I left the office on that first day, Diane shared with me five of her favorite documentaries so that I could better understand her taste and, perhaps more importantly, to become attuned with the breadth of the genre that fueled her insatiable passion for documentary. Those films said so much about Diane—from her appreciation for people living on the fringes, to her sharp sense of humor and, of course, her commitment to social justice. That introduction was the start of a decade-long masterclass on how to be a good and successful executive producer.
I am a firm believer in the value of having mentors in your life. I was lucky enough to have the best in the business as mine. On reflection, I would like to think that her desire to nurture and protect storytellers while still servicing the business of making films is something that I’ve taken from her and carried with me. She taught me to never accept a "no" and to always figure out another strategy to a "yes." She was a fiery, determined woman—a real fighter who would go to the mat for her films and filmmakers if she truly believed in the project. That intensity, coupled with her acute sense of responsibility to be faithful to the story, inspired everyone around her to bring their A-game, every day, because she would never bring anything less.
While I value every lesson learned on how to do the work, the human life lessons are my most treasured. I am hard-pressed to think of anyone in our industry more authentic and genuine than Diane. What you saw is what you got, and that was a person who was genuinely interested in you. She lived her life with intensity and a deep curiosity about humanity. To say she will be missed by me and our community is not enough. I will cherish every long hug she gave me and, most certainly, those films that began the path of an extraordinary mentorship and, thankfully, a friendship of a lifetime.
Diane once told me that growing up, she identified with Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. It made perfect sense—a character whose purity of heart and moral drive withstands life’s injustices. Working with Diane on two films, I saw her conviction in action. She was unfaltering in her encouragement and unflinching in her honesty, and if you needed someone to back you, her sleeves were always rolled up. I always felt energized by her; she made us feel like we were comrades, rock stars, underdogs and friends.
Diane never failed to appreciate the world she was trying to help. I have a memory of standing on location with her, venting about production issues or politics or insomnia—I can’t remember exactly, but what I do remember is how she suddenly glanced around, flashed that radiant smile and said, "Guys, look at where we are!" And we stood together and took in the unfamiliar landscape, the people around us, the moment. With Diane, you were always reminded that you were part of something. I feel grateful to have known her.
Filmmaker (Last Call at the Oasis; Meet Mr. Toilet)
Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.