The documentary community is not backing down from Donald Trump. At the DOC NYC annual Visionaries Tribute lunch in New York Thursday, four honorees from the documentary world received prestigious awards, but rather than bask in the glow of accolades, the winners seized their time in the spotlight to address the urgent need to expose the truth now more than ever as the start of Trump’s presidency draws near.
“I don’t think the election of Trump changes anybody’s personal agenda,” Jonathan Demme said after receiving one of two lifetime achievement awards presented Thursday, the first day of the one-week documentary festival. “We still have our agendas and we’re still going to push for meaningful progressive change. The bar is just higher.”
The other lifetime achievement award recipient, Stanley Nelson, told the crowd he believes Trump’s victory was in large part due to the media’s failure to tell the “full American story,” and that the documentary community can be a leading force in the “turbulent times ahead” if it embraces diversity rather than shying away from it.
“We must all step out of our comfort zones and hire someone who doesn’t look like you and take a chance on a producer, writer, cameraperson or associate producer who otherwise would not be able to crack open the door of our very insular industry,” Nelson said. “It’s only because someone took the chance and stepped out of their comfort zone and hired me that I’m now here today.” He added that the history of America is not a steady path uphill, but more like a rollercoaster ride. “As long as we keep learning, loving and fighting for what’s right, the path will rise upwards again.”
Dawn Porter, who received the Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, said that the challenge of getting important documentary works seen is only going to increase during the Trump administration.
“This is not the time to compromise or shy away from the truths that we see, because there’s going to be a lot of pressure to not tell those stories and to not get them on air,” Porter said, adding that in some southern U.S. states, PBS did not air her 2016 documentary “Trapped,” about regulations that restrict access to abortion in America. “I’m very concerned about public broadcasting. If PBS does not show ‘Trapped’ under the Obama administration, tell me how we’re going to get a film critical of people who suppress race shown now.”
DOC NYC’s Leading Light Award went to Molly Thompson, the founder of A&E Studios’ feature documentary production arm, A&E IndieFilms, which under her leadership received Academy Award nominations for “Cartel Land,” “Jesus Camp,” and “Murderball.” “It’s been a tough week and I’ve been very shaken, but I have so much faith in the creative power that’s in this room to get us through this,” she said. Filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (“Life, Animated”) presented Thompson with her award, saying that “in times like this, we need executives like Molly who are not afraid to force us to take a deep look into who we are as a society and as a country. She is going to have her hands full for the next four years.”
DOC NYC artistic director Thom Powers noted that while the U.S. missed an opportunity to elect a woman president this week, the American documentary community has a more progressive history to celebrate. “The world of American documentary has long been very well served by many great women leaders,” Powers said. “We’re so appreciative of their support.”