Just five months before his death last week, Jonathan Demme was onstage at the DOC NYC annual Visionaries Tribute lunch in New York, where he delivered a gracious speech after receiving a lifetime achievement award for documentary filmmaking. In his speech, Demme mostly talked about other filmmakers and champions of documentary film that were also in the room.
“There’s a lot of heroes here,” Demme said. “Stanley Nelson, Alex Gibney, Michael Moore. This is just like a deluge of great documentary filmmakers.” Nelson also received a lifetime achievement award at the ceremony.
Demme also made a point to thank the executives, producers and distributors he’s known and worked with over the years, including Molly Thompson, the founder and head of A&E IndieFilms, longtime producer and distributor Ira Deutchman, and DOC NYC’s executive director Rapheala Neihausen and artistic director Thom Powers.
“Thom and Rapheala — we all know, this isn’t news — they are the fierce saints of documentary filmmaking, documentary showing and documentary promoting. I mean, my god, a world without those guys — oh no, we’re screwed. Thank you for all that you do.”
Though Demme is known for narrative features like “Philadelphia” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” for which he won the Oscar for Best Director, he said in his speech that we was most passionate about his documentaries.
“I think if you’re going to be proud of any of the work you’ve done, I’m definitely proudest of the documentaries I’ve made,” Demme said. “I’ve had a chance to enter worlds. Maybe it’s a person or a neighborhood or in the case of Haiti, a country that is so inspiring and to be able to — through film — try to capture that which inspires me, and then ideally, share it, share this inspiration if at all possible. It’s such a great job to have and again, I’m so proud of this award.”
Demme tackled political subjects in his documentaries “Mandela” and “Man from Plains,” about former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, but he was also known as a master of concert docs, from “Stop Making Sense” to “Storefront Hitchcock” to “Neil Young: Heart of Gold.”
Demme’s speech took place just days after the election of President Donald Trump, an event he responded to with a message of hope and optimism. “I don’t think the election of Trump changes anybody’s personal agenda,” he said. “We still have our agendas and we’re still going to push for meaningful progressive change. The bar is just higher.”
Watch Demme’s full acceptance speech in the video below.