Let the Sundance shine in

Since Cara Mertes stepped in as the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program's director a year ago, she's kept its doc fund central to the program. But Mertes has also expanded it into a year-round initiative that offers services to doc-makers worldwide.
December 1, 2007

Since Cara Mertes stepped in as the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program’s director a year ago, she’s kept its doc fund central to the program. But Mertes has also expanded it into a year-round initiative that offers services to doc-makers worldwide.

The program not only works on a global level with both commercial cable and non-profit entities to bolster cinematic docs on contemporary issues, but its films don’t have to be tied to a broadcaster. In her role, Mertes also provides support for the doc-related elements of the Sundance Film Festival, including programming panels in the doc-friendly Filmmaker Lodge. This year, the fest received a record-breaking 1,549 feature doc entries – a testament to its importance in the non-fiction community.

A week after she started at Sundance, Mertes set up an interview with Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute, to hear his views on docs from the past, present and future. ‘He’s the first celebrity to really understand what documentary can do, and he’s been committed to it since day one,’ says Mertes. What follows is an excerpt from Mertes’ interview with Redford:

You made an early commitment to documentary. Why was that?
A lot of what Sundance is today has to do with my early impressions as a kid. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Los Angeles and our main entertainment was going to the movie theater on Saturday night. I remember being impressed by the Pathe newsreels, which were really an early form of documentaries. They brought you information, including images of the Second World War that was going on, and if you had relatives in the war there was a personal connection that probably hooked me. There was also something about the grainy sense of reality that really stood out against the feature presentations of narrative films and animation.

When did you start to think of docs as something other than straight journalism?
In the 1950s, I remember the McCarthy hearings on television and it was all extremely dramatic and it really struck me. Then, in the ’60s I saw Emile de Antonio’s films on the same hearings and it was suddenly clear how a filmmaker could work with real events and also tell you more of the whole story. And I realized that documentaries could carry a weight that fiction films didn’t seem to have, and I started to get hooked on them. But at that time, almost all documentaries were in the talking-head style and were primarily academic. And then they started to take a new turn with the work of people like Drew Associates, Lee Pennebaker, the Maysles. Suddenly, the camera was moving and they were covering live things that were so dramatic that I began to think, ‘This drama of reality is as strong, if not stronger, than the narrative theatrical films in the marketplace.’

And this was the impetus for you to become involved in the making of docs?
That’s right. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, as a sidebar to my own career, I began to think that I wanted to get into documentaries in some way. I started by supporting documentarians by either narrating or producing or coproducing or arranging money for them. It started out with smaller films about the threats to the environment or Native American issues on Indian lands where developers were coming in trying to wipe them out. My interest continued to build until finally in the mid ’70s, I began to feel that there would be a future for documentaries as they evolved and that someday they would evolve to a place where they would be equivalent to mainstream, narrative filmmaking.

How did documentaries fit into the idea for the Festival?
From the very first Festival, we’ve screened documentaries. And by the early ’90s, the Festival had formed enough of a visible platform that we could start leveraging it more aggressively to promote non-fiction work. So we started pushing documentaries by positioning them more highly, giving them more screenings, showing more of them.

In 2001, the Institute began giving grants when the Soros Documentary Fund became the Sundance Documentary Fund. How did this come to fruition?
By that time we had a solid platform to show documentaries at the Festival, we could see the potential for audiences to grow, and we wanted to provide resources to get more of these films made. By providing both funding and a strong platform for exhibition, we hoped we could raise awareness about international issues of human rights. We went to Diane Weyermann who had been instrumental in starting up the Soros Documentary Fund at the Open Society Institute, and we worked out how the Fund could come over to Sundance. A lot of the pieces came together at the right time. And now, we also provide labs for documentarians to support the creative side of their work.

Are docs a way to directly approach deeply political and urgent questions?
Definitely. I want Sundance to be a forum for cultural exchange and for political dialog. We’re not hearing the truth about a lot of issues and I’m worried that people are giving up and getting numb and not even bothering to look for the truth. It’s often in documentaries – when the focus is on personal stories – that we learn the truth of current situations and events. They’re not just a cultural force for storytelling, they’re also political truth. If you look at Born into Brothels and Hoop Dreams and Super Size Me, these kinds of films really are a huge channel to get back to the truth. So, yeah, it is political.

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