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Notes from the Reel World: The Executive Director's Column Summer 2018

By Simon Kilmurry

Dear IDA Community:

I recently had the opportunity to lead a seminar on documentary film with high school students at the California State Summer School for the Arts. I don’t teach often and I was a little daunted about how I could engage high schoolers, albeit ones who have already engaged deeply in the arts. I wanted to get a sense of who was in the room and what films that they had seen that had resonated with them, so I asked them to tell me about those films. Frankly, I was blown away both by their choices. They cited films such as Elizabeth Lo's Hotel 22 and Yance Ford's Strong Island, Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man and Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine. As I spoke to them, it became clear how thoughtful their analysis was; they had really considered why filmmakers had made certain choices in shaping their films.

I shared with them some clips of films that had a huge impact on me as I entered this field—Silverlake Life, by Tom Joslin and Peter Freidman, and Brother's Keeper, by Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger. The students had keen observations about both of them, about the context in which they were made and the different storytelling approaches. But the film that really struck a chord with them was Tongues Untied, by Marlon Riggs. Their excitement was palpable, they could relate, they appreciated the unapologetic assertion of identity, the poetry and performance, the bending of the documentary form—the film spoke across the generations and was as relevant to this diverse group of students as it was in 1989.

I don’t tell this story just to share how smart these people were, but to make a larger point about how films impact people. After a recent screening of his new film, The King, I was talking with director Eugene Jarecki and we were debating how can we know if films are having an impact on people and in the world. The point that I tried to make was that most often we rarely know what that impact looks like. It happens on an individual basis, in private spaces, in homes and hearts, and sometimes many years after a film has been completed and we have moved on to the next thing.  The impact of art on an individual is often incremental and hard to measure. The social changes that we witness can rarely be assigned directly to the documentaries about those issues, but the film is part of the larger narrative working in concert with social movements, and thus they are part of the change we see in the world.

The films I have watched have changed me. And almost 30 years after it was made, Tongues Untied continues to challenge and change the people who see it. I find it incredibly hopeful that our work has the potential to have that impact over time and, like all great art, speaks afresh to new generations.

Keep filming and keep making art that inspires!


Simon Kilmurry
Executive Director