The panoramic view of the city of Toronto visible from the Stop 33 rooftop ballroom and restaurant at the Sutton Place hotel set an appropriate backdrop for this year’s Hot Docs’ Doc Mogul luncheon, celebrating the career of an industry pioneer who has broadened the vistas for the documentary.
Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary and Family, was fêted with an affair that was part roast and part toast, as several of her peers took turns at the podium to deliver their takes on Nevins’ career and impact on the doc scene before a sold-out audience.
The BBC’s Nick Fraser, last year’s recipient of the Doc Mogul honor, graciously passed the crown onto Nevins with a short speech praising her vitality and strength. He remarked that while some who work with Nevins are either frightened by or in awe of her, ‘I’m simply excited by her… I love her certainties and I love the fact that her certainties change so frequently.’
Nevins’ quick-moving mind was a topic oft-repeated during the speeches, with Lisa Heller, HBO’s VP of original programming, calling Nevins ‘a moving target, bobbing and weaving, defying expectations at every turn.’ Heller also noted the deep feeling that Nevins has for the subjects of the docus that air on HBO, saying, ‘She never forgets the people who’ve shared their stories with us.’
Most of the speakers also noted the interesting contradictions and gamut of traits that pepper Nevins’ personality and make her the person she is. Geoffrey Gilmore, having worked with Nevins often as the former director of the Sundance Film Festival and now as chief creative officer with the Tribeca Film Fest, evoked the range of the work Nevins has brought to HBO over her three decades helming its doc division. ‘You don’t know who Sheila Nevins is by looking at her work,’ he noted, in reference to a clip that showed the wide spectrum of docs she’s executive produced, ranging from Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke to the riveting Southern Comfort, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance in 2001. Gilmore said Nevins’ keen eye for a gripping project has elevated her above corporate television culture and made her a ‘survivor in a world where no one survives’, and furthermore has ‘redefined the documentary arena…opened it up, celebrated it and used it as a platform for celebrating life in all its range and complexity.’
TV2′s Mette Hoffman Meyer offered a poem to the proceedings, composed at the airport en route to Hot Docs. Although she claimed it was her first experience putting things to rhyme in English, she didn’t do badly at all, as evidenced in the ode’s last couplet: ‘Don’t stop now, it’s much too soon/ You still have to conquer the sun and the moon.’
Nevins took to the podium briefly to thank Hot Docs for the honor, and her peers for their thoughts. Addressing the contradictions noted in the preceding speeches (primarily the tough and nurturing qualities of her personality), she recounted a story about a particular project’s editing session. Working late into the evening/morning with a bleary-eyed editor badly in need of a break, Nevins was enthusiastically pushing him on, with the end, and a final cut, in sight. ‘He said, ‘You know what? You have the biggest balls in the business,” recalled Nevins. It wasn’t an accolade she disagreed with, and few in the audience would either.