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Fast Foreword: The Editor's Column, September 2001

By Tom White

Dear Readers,

Welcome to nature, or the world of nature and wildlife documentaries, a genre that has seen a surge in popularity on the international distribution circuit over the past several years.

This issue affords you a glimpse at the perspectives of programmers and practitioners alike. Barry Clark, one of the more respected authorities on nature filmmaking, offers his insights into the state of the genre—where it is now and where it can and ought to go. Michael Rose talks to executives at three of the leading programmers of natural history docs—National Geographic, Discovery Channel and Animal Planet—about their respective audiences, approaches to production and takes on how new technologies have played a role in transforming the genre. Then we hear from Howard Hall, a veteran in the challenging field of large-format underwater cinematography, who shares the joys and frustrations of capturing the beauty of the undersea world with extraordinarily cumbersome equipment.

Not be confused with nature docs are environmental docs, which generally take a more pointed, often political, view of nature and particularly man’s relationship to it. Emily Edwards examines Sheila Laffey’s The Last Stand, a film about the struggle to preserve a wetlands ecosystem in Los Angeles against the encroaching ambitions of developers and corporations. In this month’s “Tales from the Trenches,” filmmaker Juan Farre talks about the struggles to make his documentary about the sad fate of the Lacandon rain forest in the politically volatile region of Chiapas, Mexico.

As promised in the last issue, we continue to explore ways to get your documentary seen. Ted Barron discusses non-theatrical distribution, and particularly the dynamic possibilities of the DVD format, with spokespeople from PBS Home Video/PBS Video, Winstar Home Video and Fanlight Productions. Also, Libby Bassett pays tribute to distributor New Day Films on its 30th anniversary.

Closer to the IDA family, Executive Director Sandra Ruch shares her vision for the organization as it nears its 20th birthday in 2002. Sadly, it seems that every other issue we bid farewell to another fallen titan from the documentary pantheon; this time,we salute Erik Barnouw, the eminence grise of the genre and one of the pre-eminent scholars of media history and communications. A pioneer in many ways, he founded the division of film, radio and television at Columbia University; served as the first President of International Film Seminars (now Flaherty Film Seminars; and the first chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress; and was the first recipient of IDA’s Preservation and Scholarship Award. I’m grateful to Dr. Patricia Zimmerman at Ithaca College for furnishing us with information on Mr. Barnouw, and I thank former IDA Executive Director Betsy McLane and former IDA President Harrison Engle for sharing their remembrances with us.


Yours in actuality,

Thomas White