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How Women Made the Documentary Community

DOC NYC's Thom Powers shares his speech from the opening day of America's largest documentary festival.

Thom Powers at the 2017 DOC NYC luncheon

DOC NYC, the largest documentary festival in America, kicked off its latest edition this week with its annual Visionaries Tribute. Co-founder Thom Powers opened the ceremony with the following speech.

One year ago, our community was gathered at the Visionaries Tribute two days after Donald Trump was elected. In that dark moment, I know many people in this room took strength from being among great storytellers, feeling that documentary-making had an important role to play.

We were living through a historic moment then, and now we’re living through a different one as we witness the cascading exposure of sexual harassment endemic to our culture.

To an extent, this is something we all knew happened. Only now we have a much more vivid image of what it looked like – with a fat gut hanging out of a bathrobe.

Each of us are having to deal with our own contribution of tolerating it, not doing more to challenge it.

We know men aren’t immune from being victims of abuse. We’ve seen documentaries like Amy Berg’s “Open Secret” and Alex Gibney’s “Mea Maxima Culpa” that taught us.

But unquestionably women bear a greater brunt – to put it mildly – that carries over into casual everyday sexism. Just as the most liberal white person will never fully understand what it means to be black, Hispanic, Asian, Arab or another minority, I recognize that no man will fully appreciate the small and large obstacles that women regularly face.

But we can try to understand – a lot harder.

I will resist getting too self-congratulatory about our documentary field. But it’s undeniable that this is a space that’s benefited from the extraordinary achievements of women.

I think of Diane Weyermann who started at the Soros Foundation, created the Sundance Documentary Fund, then grew the documentary division of Participant.

I think of Laura Poitras who leveraged her achievements to support other filmmakers with Field of Vision.

I think of Jen Brea who, being bedridden with illness, rallied to make the extraordinary documentary “Unrest” that gave voice to an ignored population.

There are so many other pioneers in the room – Chris Hegedus, Barbara Kopple, Christine Choy.

I think of executives like Lisa Nishimura, Molly Thompson, Katherine Oliver and DOC NYC’s own Raphaela Neihausen.

Raphaela Neihausen, Sheila Nevins and Thom Powers

Of course, I think of our honorees today – Cara Mertes and Sheila Nevins. We’re talking about decades of achievement with those two women. This year, Sheila gave us her wonderful book “You Don’t Look Your Age…and Other Fairy Tales” that helps us better understand some of the petty and not-so-petty bullshit she had to fight through.

I think about the cruel undermining that takes place all the time of women in power, the remarks you hear over cocktails:

– “She’s such a social climber.”

– “It was really the cameraman who made that film.”

– “She wouldn’t be anywhere without her husband.”

– “You know, she has a trust fund.”

– “She only got the job because she’s beautiful.”

Let’s be clear: I’ve said those things myself. Heck, I hear women say those things about other women – sometimes with more edge than men say them.

We’re living in a moment when we all have to grapple with assumptions we’ve made and prejudices that persist. We need to work to make serious change.

But in this room today, let’s take a moment to be grateful for the women who have pushed the documentary form to the thriving place it is today.

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