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Notes from the Reel World, Summer 2017

By Marjan Safinia

Dear IDA Community:

Indulge me as I go off-script for a moment.

For the last decade, I've been volunteering to transform our neighborhood's commercial corridor. Folks have complained about the blight and the need for new businesses for close to 50 years. But despite valiant efforts, the problems persist, and at times it all feels overwhelming and futile. How can we, as a group of committed local activists, change major systemic problems like freeway ramps and traffic safety? Without the buy-in of systems of leadership and power, how do individuals change things they don't have the power to change? And as importantly, how do you rally a community that has resigned itself to the status quo to believe change is even possible?

Here in our documentary community, we have our own entrenched problem: How do you financially sustain a career in documentary?

I bet some of you are yawning just reading that. What's ever going to change, right?

So I get it. People get weary with piecemeal efforts. Getting one or two new storefronts hasn't fixed things for our street. Similarly, one or two bright new opportunities in the documentary space—while welcome—haven't been enough. If we're to make lasting impact on a stagnant problem, our institutions, funders, gatekeepers and policymakers must acknowledge the importance of the problem and set an agenda to fix it, together. When powerful forces align for change, suddenly the insurmountable seems possible. The troops rally.

This summer, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published The State of the Field, reporting on the Sustainability Summit, which the agency held in collaboration with IDA earlier this year. The report lays out clear ideas and strategies for kickstarting change—ideas that involve network thinking and collaboration, investment in field-wide research, cohesive advocacy for policy change, and funder and industry education about how small changes in support could have a profound effect on the lives of filmmakers. Most importantly, the report signals to arts agencies around the country that the sustainability of the documentary field is a priority, and they have a clear role to play in the solution. That's pretty huge.

Naturally, I encourage you all to read the report. But beyond reading and sharing on Facebook, what's next?

Things change when leaders lead. In 2014, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti started the Great Streets program to address streets like mine. He recognized that "solutions" that don't embrace community ideas rarely work. Instead, funders need to mandate a process where communities have the same standing as experts to solve problems, and further, commit to supporting the vetted ideas that emerge from this process. That's how change happens.

Now it's time to challenge our documentary leaders. Who among you believes enough in the idea that documentary filmmakers must be able to support themselves from their work that you'll step up to lead this kind of collaborative, comprehensive, fundamental change? Who will provide infrastructure, support and money to implement good ideas? Who will step forward and recognize that in leading and investing together, you can change a whole ecosystem?

Those who do will find yourselves lifted up by a community willing to work hard with you to help make it happen.

With gratitude,


Marjan Safinia
IDA Board President