Social justice has always been the bailiwick of documentary filmmakers, but the late Diane Weyermann was the woman who gave it the financing and clout it deserved. From the Sundance Institute to Participant Media, she passionately supported documentaries that might not otherwise exist. She made them better, found their audiences, and elevated what was once considered a low-budget sideline. Her projects received 10 Oscar nominations (including “RBG,” “The Look of Silence,” “Murderball,” and “The Square”) and four wins (including “The Cove,” “Citizenfour,” “An Inconvenient Truth,” and “American Factory”).
However, to sum up her impact in the language of credits and awards would an injustice of its own. Weyermann was one of those people who had the privilege of being genuinely beloved. She was dedicated to her work as chief content officer at Participant Media, but the filmmakers she worked with knew her as a fiercely intelligent champion, guide, and most of all a friend.
After losing her long battle with cancer last week, Weyermann’s friends in the documentary community sent IndieWire a flood of tributes. We present them here, with edits for length and clarity.
Davis Guggenheim, filmmaker:
It was an odd way to meet someone who would have such a profound impact on my life. I had given notice as head of documentaries at Participant Media and just a few weeks later I was directing for them what would become the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Only a few months into production, I was told that the new head of documentaries at Participant was visiting the edit room for a creative check in. It’s pretty typical for a director to bristle a bit when an executive announces they are coming to check your work and this executive had just taken my previous job at the company that was now financing my movie. In so many ways, our meeting could have gone south. But the executive was Diane Weyermann.
Jay Cassidy, who was editing the film with Dan Swietlik, had only cut the first 12 minutes of the film. So when we sat down to show our work to Diane, there was still so much that was uncertain. I’ll always remember what she said as we sat together in that tiny room. After just one viewing, Diane recognized the personal narrative we were trying to establish, the questions we were raising, and the tone we were hoping to achieve.
Her comments were sharp but never condescending. She wasn’t adversarial, though she challenged us with tough questions. What I remember more than anything was her belief in our potential. She reflected back to us our own best intentions as storytellers and a certainty that what we were doing was going to be amazing. When she left that meeting, we had clear direction from her and a feeling that anything was possible.
But while Vice President Al Gore’s slide show about climate change was brilliant and convincing and his message urgent, how were we going to turn a keynote presentation into something people would go to a theater to see? There were doubters, both from without and even from within. But never Diane. The week before we took the film to Sundance, we screened it at a major studio. Afterward, the top brass huddled together and gave us their verdict: “We don’t believe anyone will get a babysitter and buy tickets to see something like this,” the executives told us. Diane’s response, “Screw them, just wait till Sundance.” She was right. The night of our premiere, Paramount bought the film.
Over the next 17 years, Diane made one great film after another. Whenever we spoke, I’d make a point of asking her where she was calling from: In Berlin with Laura, Boston with Errol, Chicago with Steve, New York with Alex. Rarely home but never too far from an edit room and the filmmakers she loved. Seeing the best in each of us, pushing us to go further, leading us in that forceful way. And always insisting with crystal clear certainty that what we were working on was going to be amazing.
Alex Gibney, Jigsaw Productions:
Diane was a force of nature. I feel an uneasy stillness now that she’s gone. So I read all my emails with Diane going back to 2006. To: A From: D. What I found remarkable was the way she was in perpetual motion. Seminars, festivals, cutting rooms, meetings. NY, Amsterdam, Berlin, Park City, Venice, LA, NY. Even within cities, her schedules had to be plotted by the minute.
I have a mtg until 5:30pm and a dinner but not sure of time/place//Let me know what’s easy for you. I’ll be coming from a meeting around the Flatiron and dinner probably at 7/7:30 in that same area. But I can come cross town…
Will try you soon. My phone has been fixed. It stopped working of course if there middle of IDFA! In Berlin now…
I am in Amsterdam and it’s 3am so I won’t call now but am dying to know what this was about. If you can’t put in email I will try you tomorrow. But if you can email.. let me know…
When we got together there was always time for a margarita. And chit chat. About docs. About Maine. People gossip. And some business. And then, somehow, she watched every cut of every film — multiple times — on planes, on weekends, in distant hotels, in airport lounges. Her notes were always sharp (I look back and wonder why I didn’t listen to more of them) but never insistent because she wanted to support the directors who were making the films.
In looking through the emails I recall crises — always handled with calm and deliberation — coupled with a sense of joy for what she was doing. Diane was a booster rocket for every film she helped finance — and many she didn’t. I was responsible for one of the most pitiful performers in the Participant catalogue — the NY premiere was a painful whimper, as only five stragglers dropped in to the Q&A screening — but that didn’t stop her from championing the next one as if millions had seen the last.
Diane made us all better. Her smile lit up every room she entered. With the success of every film, she paid it forward to the next. With her drive, determination, fierce intelligence, and generous heart, she changed the face of the documentary.
I had a two-hour lunch with Diane just after Labor Day. Whether through optimism or faith, she was convinced she was on her way back. Undimmed by disease, she gushed about new films she was lifting up. We talked about her own hopes and dreams. She had bought a house in Maine, just down the road from me. She was fixing it up with a screening room and places for visiting filmmakers to stay. She was going to spend more time there…
She never made it. Maybe all those miles she traveled for us took their toll. But her vision for that place explained a lot about who she was: precise, determined and engaged in the unpredictability of the world around her. The vista from her work perch led down through an angled lawn leading to rocks and raspberry bushes in a disappearing perspective that focused the eye on the wild waves of the Atlantic.
Joslyn Barnes, Louverture Films (“Strong Island”):
I remember the afternoon (the late MOMA curator) Jytte Jensen insisted that Diane Weyermann and I should get to know each other better. “You’re kindred spirits,” she said. “It’s ridiculous. We’ll have dinner!” Diane delighted in bringing people together, especially in combination with the rare, brilliant films she would unearth, and because of her, over the years we shared many dinners together in NY and in far-flung places across the world. We watched films together on the big screen in the magical collective experience of a theatre, worked on Victor Kossakovsky’s “Aquarela,” and Debra Granik’s upcoming docu-series, and endlessly championed international films.
We also mourned Jytte’s untimely death to cancer. It feels raw and incomprehensible to me that Diane herself should have been dealt the same card. We got together two weeks before she died. I told her she looked good and Diane tilted her now-bewigged head and said “Well, good for a cancer patient.” Yes, round shouldered from having wrestled with the beast, but not diminished. Her qi was strong, and her will and courage to live. And of course, she gave superb comments on the 15 hours of footage she had watched in preparation for an edit session coming up, mindful of what we were aiming to do, and aiming to help us get there. Such a lionheart, I thought, at the peak of her gifts, sensibilities, career, relationships, with beautiful plans ahead — could not but survive.
F**k if impermanence isn’t the hardest lesson. Knowing her edges were already blurring into all of us, knowing we’re all comprised of stardust and breathing the atoms of our ancestors, perhaps our heartbreak will one day feel consolable.
The films Diane helped create will be among her great legacies preserved in celluloid and in pixels, but that discerning intelligence, that kindness and generosity, that embrace of and patience for the vulnerability of artists, that appreciation for formal innovation, that understanding that nonfiction requires powers of imagination different from but not less than those who work in fiction, that fascination with the uncertainty of any truth, that champion of truthtellers and witnesses, that blush at any praise, that understanding of it as a gendered response, that coming to terms with the colonized self, that effort to alter colonized structures, that tenderness for failure as necessary to artistic risk, that ask that we pay attention… has imprinted on the DNA of all who knew and loved her, and will be passed on to generations of filmmakers to come.
Diane texted me a day after the last time we saw one another: “Kindred spirit.” Heart. We are many kindred spirits. We put our shoulders, however rounded, to the wheel of life, for there are so many inconvenient truths after all, and Diane asks — well, demands, really — that we pay attention. Heart.
Steve James, filmmaker:
When Diane left us this past Thursday, I went in search of a photo I’d taken of her at a breakfast meeting some time ago in Santa Monica. I couldn’t find it in my phone, so I began strolling back through my texts with her to find where I sent it to her. It was a bit like revisiting our relationship in reverse. We texted and talked about many things in recent years — the films we were doing together, the state of the world and of docs, when we might next enjoy a “martini hour (or two)” together…
The texts since May became less frequent for a while as Diane battled the return of cancer and was subjected to chemotherapy. But she was always still there, never more so than when I showed her a couple of rough cuts of a project we are doing together. Then, it was like the Diane I’d always known — she’s calling me up to tell me what she thinks, offering trenchant thoughts, and freely giving of her enthusiasm and support. Getting such calls from her over these recent years have made my days. I know that if Diane is excited, then we are making something we can all be proud of. She’s become my creative — and well, ethical — bellwether for my work. Even when we infrequently disagree.
Another thing I observed scrolling through the texts was the sheer number of exclamation points that end so many of her sentences. Rarely will just one do. Three and four (!!!!) are more typical.
But don’t get me wrong. Diane wasn’t a cheerleader for our documentary community. While her championing of good and meaningful work was legendary, so too was the steel in her spine. She could be tough when it was called for, and there was no better person to have your back in tough times. When we had a hard time selling “City So Real,” her belief in it never wavered for a second, and she could deliver withering assessments of clueless acquisitions people, sometimes to their face if need be.
Near the beginning of my text-scrolling, I was reminded of one of Diane’s numerous trips to Chicago during the making of “America to Me.” She wanted to come and shadow our filmmaking teams for a day of shooting in the school. She had a blast, and it grounded her in the project in a way that informed her critiques when we subjected her to 12-hour rough cuts.
One of the last conversations I had with her was two weeks before she died. She’d looked at a rough cut and despite offering great feedback, she was apologetic, saying she felt she’d failed to give the film her usual attention. I told her that was so not true. That she has always been there for me, even as she dealt with this debilitating illness. And here’s the thing: I know I wasn’t unique. She gave of herself so completely to many filmmakers and to our community.
I finally found the picture (above). She will be greatly missed.
Morgan Neville, Tremolo Productions:
When we talk about the vibrant state of documentary film, we should really be talking about Diane. She had her hand in putting together so many pieces that made the success of documentaries today possible. Her taste, passion and intelligence made good things happen. I was lucky enough to work with Diane on two films, “The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble” and “Best of Enemies.” “Work“ however, isn’t the right word since being with Diane was always such fun. She was so smart about how to tell stories and for whom we were telling stories. She gave the best notes and was always your biggest cheerleader. More than anything, I will just miss a friend.
Joshua Oppenheimer, filmmaker:
Diane was that rare soul who, reunited with a friend after even a few days’ absence, would jump up and down and giggle. She was like condensed sunlight. Each time I saw her again, she’d see me coming down a street or across a lobby, and the laughter would begin…
Her effervescence was infectious. By the time we’d embrace, I’d be laughing too. When we released “The Look of Silence,” Diane’s love for the protagonist, the courageous, empathic, gentle Adi Rukun, drew her into the orbit of our lives for nearly two years. She became family, and as she adopted the Indonesian human rights community’s determination to make lasting change, they became a kind of extended family to her.
I believe Diane buoyed in this way everyone who knew her. Certainly, she inspired all of us lucky enough to work with her to think — and rethink — how film might make the deepest possible impact in the hearts of the audience, on society, culture, politics. She took it for granted that to articulate our most painful truths is an act of hope (because you can’t change before you acknowledge the problem), but also an act of love (because a good friend does not mince words).
Integral to this political commitment, Diane rejoiced at cinema’s capacity for awe. Full of wonder, she helped generations of filmmakers explore, through film, truths so mysterious and delicate that you catch your breath the moment you see and hear them articulated. For Diane, this ability of cinema to insinuate itself into our dreams is powerful, for how better to make change than transform how we imagine the world and our place in it?
I visited Diane three weeks before she died. She could no longer jump up and down, but her laughter still echoes, her smile still glows, and the enthusiasm with which she described every film she was working on will nourish these films and make them brilliant.
Tabitha Jackson, Director, Sundance Film Festival:
Documentary is a time machine, and so the correct use of tenses is a preoccupation of the documentary filmmaker. I can’t believe that I am having to write about Diane in the past tense. There was so much left to learn from her, so many conversations yet to be had, so much passion and expertise still to be shared, but her legacy, and indeed her wise and beautiful presence, will be felt long into the future.
Part of that legacy is what she built at Sundance: a Documentary Film Program founded on the unshakeable belief that film can play a unique, powerful, and beautiful role in social progress; that freedom of creative expression is a necessity, not a luxury; and that cinema is an international language whose many vocabularies lead us to a richer and better understanding of our world. She understood the rigors and vulnerabilities of the creative process, and how to support filmmakers both in finding their voice and in “finding the film.”
Our community of filmmakers has lost a trusted guide and a fierce protector. Diane was gentle, and she was strong. Her commitment to the work was legendary. She is gone far too soon. Her smile is still visible and her laugh is still audible…
And it will be a long time before using the past tense will feel okay.
Laura Poitras, filmmaker:
Knowing Diane is a before/after moment in my life. The ground feels very unsteady without her, and I don’t know if this feeling will ever leave me. She built the foundation of so much. In 2005, Diane invited me to participate in the Sundance edit lab. She created the lab to provide non-fiction filmmakers a space devoted to creative process and storytelling. What has unfolded in this space among filmmakers over the years is a kind of magic that reflects Diane’s vision and way of being in the world — her devotion to cinema and ideas, her belief in justice, her passionate protection of artists, and her deep friendships. Diane created this kind of magic over and over again throughout her life. What Diane built and gave to us is profound. The loss is also profound — the loss of a great friend, a magician, a partner in crime, a fighter, a protector, and a visionary.
Errol Morris, filmmaker:
What to say? Diane was so much part of my life. She helped me with many movies. Among them — “Standard Operating Procedure” (about Abu Ghraib) and “The Unknown Known” (about Donald Rumsfeld). And I was so excited we were collaborating on a new project. Her death is an unimaginable loss. I still can’t believe it. She was a fabulous producer and an even more fabulous friend. People often talk about good people. Well, Diane was among the best. Funny, ironic, but also involved. The world is so much the worse without her.
John Battsek, Ventureland:
The documentary landscape has suffered a bitter, tragic blow. One of its brightest stars, one of its most dynamic forces has been extinguished. It’s hard to know where to start as I’m still juggling my fury at the world for taking Diane, and my love, respect and admiration for her. Diane was the best, she was utterly brilliant. Every moment I ever spent working with her felt like a joyful education and privilege because she was just so superb at her craft. I learned something each time I was lucky enough to be in her presence as we worked on a film. And Diane was my friend. A truly wonderful, loyal, interesting, charming, inquisitive, encouraging friend. With the biggest smile on the planet. And her hug, and kiss hello, I’ll never forget. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with Diane and heartbroken for the many films and filmmakers who will miss out on that glorious experience. I feel thankful for her love and friendship and deeply sorry that my chances to reciprocate that love and friendship are over. A truly devastating loss, I will miss her forever.
Josh Braun, Submarine:
I started working with Diane in 2007. I knew her before then, but didn’t understand what an incredible force of nature she was until we started working together on her documentary slate at Participant. She quickly became a true friend and someone that I cared about deeply. Every film we worked on together (“Food Inc.,” “Page One,” and many others including, more recently, “American Factory” and “Final Account”) became a personal and strategic campaign to figure out the best plan together. She was a colleague in arms who had incredible taste and instinct, and it was always a pleasure to work with her.
Diane was family to us at Submarine. One of my fondest memories was at Sundance in 2019 when we cooked dinner at our condo. It was only the Submarine team, and Diane but it was an intimate family dinner and Diane was a member of the family to us and this was the most comforting way to kick off the festival.
I already miss her so much, and I have heard from dozens of filmmakers who feel the same. The combination of her brilliant mind and great taste with her tireless dedication to the documentary world was truly one of a kind. There will never be another Diane Weyermann.
Margaret Brown, filmmaker:
There is an unspeakable vacuum left in Diane’s absence, and I imagine everyone she worked with must feel this. She possessed a singular dedication to the craft of storytelling, coupled with an iron will to get these stories told. To me personally, Diane was a friend, mentor and collaborator. She was the person I called to bounce everything off of creatively — I always felt safe that my vision would be fiercely protected when I worked with her. I know that her legacy will inspire generations to come. I will always miss you, Diane.
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, filmmakers:
Just before the pandemic, Diane traveled to San Francisco to introduce us to some folks with an inspiring story to tell. It was an exquisite day, and, en route to dinner that night, we turned a corner revealing the Pacific Coast. “Wow! This. Is. So. Beautiful,” she said, her smile and face as bright as the afternoon sun. Diane loved this planet, basked in its sublime beauty, and profoundly appreciated the wonder of its life forms… especially the creative potential of us humans.
A few years earlier, we stepped off of a helicopter onto the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland together. “Be careful where you step. Some patches of this ice are quite weak,” said the glaciologist. “Wow! This. Is. So. Beautiful,” said Diane, her giant smile alternating now with a furrowed brow of motherly concern for the film crew for whom she felt responsible. Nobody enjoyed an adventure more than Diane, but the adventure was secondary to the mission to protect the ice… and us humans.
Traveling the world with Diane made us feel like newborns opening our eyes for the first time. Seeing what she saw, witnessing the spark in her eye, and feeling the love in her heart inspired us. “We can do this,” she would say. We can make a difference. Move the needle. Tell this story. To be in Diane’s world was a privilege. A privilege to be seen, supported unconditionally as an artist, to be trusted and, simply, to be alive.
The index cards on the bulletin board in the editing room was another of the world’s wonders to Diane. There was the smile, and sometimes the furrowed brow of a film studies professor who had seen every film ever made. Making art was a sacred process to her, and we felt her protective hand as much as we did her guiding light. Diane had the realization that beautifully made documentaries inspire people to regard the world around them and become agents of social change. She spent her time creating systems in which this could happen more often, where more and more filmmakers from around the world could participate.
Our community has lost our north star. Now, we must carry on and pass along what Diane generously gave to us. With her in mind, we will do better, try harder, and keep creating, hoping to inspire and make change. Diane died this past week way too soon, but we are all still living in her world. Wow, it is so beautiful.
Rachel Dretzin, Ark Media:
When I first met Diane a decade ago, she was there early, which I would later learn was a trademark Diane move. Even though she was often the most important person at the meeting, Diane was always there first. She would greet people with a beaming smile and never pick up her phone during the meeting. That was just one of many ways in which she displayed her grace, warmth, and class.
Diane and I worked on three projects together. She became a sort of guardian angel, as she was for so many other filmmakers. Her fierce and unwavering support made us feel protected. She made it clear she’d hurl herself body and soul between me and anyone who wanted to get in the way of my films. Money, commercial interests, prestige… none of it really mattered to her if it compromised the storytelling. That righteous outrage she had when someone or something got in the way of a filmmaker’s creative vision! She took it as personally as if it had happened to someone in her family — because it had.
Over the years our bond ripened into a deep friendship, and I helped care for Diane when she got sick. In the last year of her life, when COVID forced her to stem her insane travel schedule, she made some big decisions: to move back to New York from LA, to buy a house in Maine, to get a dog. She wanted to slow down and balance her life more. Her illness thwarted most of her plans, but she never abandoned them. Sometimes I thought she was reckless: insisting on moving East in the middle of chemo, haggling with contractors in between radiation treatments, brushing off her friends’ offers to accompany her to terrifying scans. She was proud and independent, relentlessly positive. She rocked her pixie wig. She kept working. She fought and fought until she was finally overcome.
Sometimes I questioned her bluster, but Diane didn’t play by other people’s rules. She didn’t want to and she didn’t need to. She carved out a beautiful corner of the world for those of us who were lucky enough to work with her, and she shielded us from the rain and the storm and the winds. How we will miss her.
Kate Amend, editor (“The Keepers”):
I had the privilege of being an advisor at the first Sundance Documentary Edit and Story Lab created by Diane. It was a time that will live with me forever. It was so lovingly curated and choreographed by her. Even though few of us knew each other (and I hadn’t even met Diane before this), the pairings and partnerships between advisors and fellows were all perfect. The daily sessions were productive, inspiring and fruitful, all guided by Diane’s sensitivity, intelligence, and genuine knowledge of each project. By the end of this experience, many of us had bonded for life.
That’s certainly what happened with Diane and me. She became a beloved friend and colleague, and I loved working with her on many projects with Participant. Diane was an executive producer that you actually welcomed into the editing room! Her insight and wisdom always made every film better. I still have a saved message from her on my answering machine praising my work on a recent film. I play it when I need cheering up.
Julie Goldman, Motto Pictures:
Diane’s integrity and her absolute commitment to justice were fortunately paired with her magnificently creative mind, which led to her becoming an unparalleled leader in the documentary community. We will all miss her sense of humor — the mischief in her eyes as she leaned in to tell you something hilarious — her love of adventure and her exuberance for life.
We’ve lost a vital leader and member of our community. Diane’s dedication, support and mentorship truly paved a way for us to tell stories objectively while remaining empathetic toward all the subjects in our work. Diane not only supported her fellow producers and her films’ directors, but also the films’ subjects. She always insisted that they were respected and included in the good faith telling of their stories — which is no small task. Understanding and appreciating the humanity and vulnerability of her films’ subjects informed her filmmaking, but also strengthened stories and exposed deeper truths.
Diane was intuitively sensitive toward the traumatized survivors of the Deepwater Horizon explosion featured in “The Great Invisible.” She discussed the potential for the survivors to experience unexpected emotional responses in a large public screening of the film. Diane instinctively understood their fears and vulnerability and made certain that all of us did as well.
Lucy McBath and Ron Davis, who were devastated by the loss of their son Jordan, trusted Marc Silver and Orlando Bagwell to tell their story in the film “3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets,” but they were uncertain about this company Participant. Within a few minutes of speaking with Diane, Lucy and Ron were reassured that their precious son’s story would be in the best of hands. This was Diane in essence; a light shone so brightly she was irresistible. She had the unique ability to listen and make people feel more fully seen and understood — and she was able to do all this while she held them in her familiar warm gaze and charmed them with her ever dazzling smile — which I’ll probably miss most of all.
Laura Kim, Participant Media:
How lucky I am to have gotten to spend the last seven years with my dear friend Diane. While I am heartbroken by her death, like hundreds of people across the globe, I try and find comfort in knowing just how important it is to do work you love with people you love. I had that privilege. We met and worked together when she was at Sundance and remained friends as she moved on to Participant, where I joined her in 2014. Diane was everything. She had a pure heart. She was passionate and hopeful. She was fierce but open and warm, righteous and proud, yet humble and idealistic. She was worldly and sophisticated, smart and strategic, but earthy and kind. While I will miss our dinners, late night glasses of wine, whispering in theaters at festivals around the world, our fiery talks about films and the world we live in, our conversations about every little and big thing, it gives me such great happiness to know that her relationships with others ran deep and many people felt about her as I did. It is a comfort to feel there is so much love during this sad time. I will miss my greatest champion and protector, my friend and my hero.
Courtney Sexton, CNN Documentaries:
Diane made an indelible impression on my life from the first day she joined Participant. I was a junior creative exec there at the time with business cards and plenty of enthusiasm, but not much to show for actual experience (or taste, for that matter). Diane, on the other hand, was already a legend in the documentary world. To say I was intimidated by her arrival and her reputation was an understatement — with no resume to speak of I thought she would see right through me, immediately know I was a fraud, and promptly send me packing.
If you know Diane, you know my fear was laughable. She didn’t come to wield an axe or throw her weight around; she joined with the intention of imparting her wisdom and experience. Before I left the office on that first day, Diane shared with me five of her favorite documentaries so that I could better understand her taste and — perhaps more importantly, to become attuned with the breadth of the genre which fueled her insatiable passion for documentary. Those films said so much about Diane; from her appreciation for people living on the fringes, to her sharp sense of humor and, of course, her commitment to social justice. That introduction was the start of a decade-long masterclass on how to be a good and successful executive producer.
I would like to think that her desire to nurture and protect storytellers while still servicing the business of making films is something that I’ve taken from her and carried with me. She taught me to never accept a “no” and to always figure out another strategy to a “yes.” She was a fiery, determined woman — a real fighter who would go to the mat for her films and filmmakers if she believed in the project. That intensity, coupled with her acute sense of responsibility to be faithful to the story, inspired everyone around her to bring their A-game, every day, because she would never bring anything less.
I am hard-pressed to think of anyone in our industry more authentic and genuine than Diane. What you saw is what you got, and that was a person who was genuinely interested in you. She lived her life with intensity and a deep curiosity about humanity. To say she will be missed by me and our community is not enough.