The panel smelled of prestige. The plush venue, the main theatre of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, was grand – huge golden replicas of Oscar flanked the stage on either side, gazing benevolently down on row after red velvet row of eager ears. On the dais were names like Mel Stuart, David Grubin, and David Wolper – many an Emmy and Peabody among them.
The topic, one of many presented at the third International Documentary Congress, was historical and biographical documentaries, and with the accumulated expertise on stage – including Susan Lacy from American Masters and Laurence Rees from BBC’s Reputations – the audience could have been in for some valuable tutelage. It’s too bad the topic deteriorated into `Let’s Bash Broadcasters, Especially Cable.’ It was a waste.
Moderator Wolper’s first question was: ‘Can we make documentaries today at the prices available?’ and long-time collaborator Robert Guenette launched into a parable, casting filmmakers in the role of sharecropper. The audience was treated to a treatise on ‘economic rape.’ I believe I blushed when Mel Stuart said he wishes cable ‘would lose some of that profit-making mentality.’
Now, I would heartily agree that broadcasters devoid of a public service mandate are nothing short of a cultural ill, and I also agree with Guenette that the establishment of PBS, beloved as it is, gave mainstream American television an excuse to push all its social responsibility over there.
However, the young and emerging filmmakers in the audience cannot afford to be bitter if they want to make their films. They live in the reality of 1998, and they understand that cable, like the networks, is run by capitalists, not Benedictine monks. They must be smarter – and they are, because many of them are making documentaries today at the prices available.
It is grievous that broadcasters in general have no mandate to enlighten or educate, and that the audience for what a panelist called ‘pornographic documentaries’ is out there in such full-force. They keep the stuff on the air. But that’s the way it is for now, and there are still droves of up-and-coming producers and filmmakers out there, intrepid in the face of it. They are as unlikely to be deterred today as the panelists were in their day. The braintrust on that panel could have done much to encourage excellence in the face of callous bottom lines, but instead they spent the audience’s time venting frustration at things not being the way they used to be. Anyone trying to make a living, let alone a legacy, in the business knows that all too well.
Mary Ellen Armstrong