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Documentary Industry Strives to ‘Meet the Moment’ Amid Pandemic, Social Unrest

Christopher Vourlias
·5-min read

A year marked by the coronavirus pandemic, economic turbulence, and widespread protest has given increased urgency to conversations about racism, social justice, and inequality. That, in turn, is forcing the documentary world to rethink the traditional ways of doing business, according to industry leaders.

“You can’t completely blow everything up, I don’t think. We have to keep moving,” said Sundance Documentary Film Program director Carrie Lozano. “But it is a time to really look back at ourselves and say, ‘Why are we doing it this way? Does this make any sense anymore?’”

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Lozano appeared at a virtual fireside chat at Hot Docs on Monday with IDFA artistic director Orwa Nyrabia to discuss how the documentary community can respond to a year of almost unprecedented changes and challenges. The session, which is available on-demand to festival attendees, was moderated by Hot Docs industry programs director Lisa Valencia-Svensson.

In their respective roles at IDFA and Sundance, Lozano and Nyrabia have reflected on the responsibility the industry bears to put itself under the microscope and show a willingness to upset the status quo. “We’re thoughtful people, and we want to do the right thing and meet the moment,” said Lozano. “But the question of how we shake up these systems is not an easy one. How do we take a pause to really shake things up and try new things at a moment where I feel we’re all in a hamster wheel, so to speak?”

Drawing on his former role as a film producer, Nyrabia highlighted the underlying tension between the artistic and moral imperatives of documentary filmmakers and festivals, and the financial realities of the larger commercial ecosystem they are a part of.

The fundamental question, he said, was whether the industry should follow the lead of its filmmakers to determine the stories they tell, or whether financing will inevitably flow toward certain hot-button topics, at the risk of creating an echo chamber from which other filmmakers are shut out. “This issue is usually ignored…[but] I think this is a very important element,” said Nyrabia.

“It’s kind of the essential question, and it’s not just about film festivals or documentary filming,” said Lozano. “It’s really the central tension of capitalism, and the way that the arts are or are not considered as part of a capitalistic model.”

Lozano pointed to the growth in recent years of equity investment in documentary filmmaking, driven in no small part by the sudden commercial viability of a genre that has gotten a huge boost from streaming platforms.

“You have a product, you have a commodity—and that is what your film is, whether you like it or not, regardless of how artistic or not it is—that it both wants to be nonprofit and wants to be for-profit,” she said. “It wants both of those things. It wants the philanthropic support, it wants the nonprofit ecosystem, and it wants some kind of commercial upside.”

She added: “We all want it both ways, and in some ways the system is set up so that we have to have it both ways.”

Yet it’s not the market alone that’s shifted, as the documentary world has begun to embrace a broader range of filmmakers. “There is a lot of new voices coming, with new narratives, or new film languages, to the table,” said Nyrabia.

He linked this to the emergence of more women filmmakers and filmmakers from the “Global South,” a trend that is evident at this year’s Hot Docs, where half the selected films are directed by women, and Latin America is well represented by the likes of Colombian filmmaker Germán Arango’s competition title “Songs That Flood the River” (pictured).

IDFA, meanwhile, has revamped its competition sections to reflect these changes, something the artistic director sees as both a necessary and positive development. “If we really allow ourselves to surrender without those expectations, those prejudiced expectations, we would discover that this is taking us to new places, that this is opening our imaginations and hearts,” he said.

At Sundance, recent changes to the documentary film fund were made with an eye toward “seeking to support historically marginalized filmmakers across the globe,” said Lozano.

“It is actually time to be more deliberate about the range of filmmakers that we support, and more open-minded about various types of storytelling,” she continued, noting that the fund is putting a greater emphasis on questions of authorship, asking filmmakers: “Why are you the ones to tell the story? What is your relationship to the story? What is your relationship to the community? How are you approaching it?”

It’s a type of introspection, both Lozano and Nyrabia stressed, that must extend beyond the filmmakers themselves to include festival programmers, the selection committees of funding bodies, and others who have traditionally been viewed as industry gatekeepers.

Ultimately, it’s a question of “risk-taking,” said Nyrabia, with an eye toward “breaking from the overall mold” in the types of documentary films that are financed, produced, and distributed. “This actually is kind of a sign towards the future,” he added, “not the remnants of a past.”

Pictured: Sundance Documentary Film Program director Carrie Lozano (left), IDFA artistic director Orwa Nyrabia.

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