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Robert Guenette—A Commitment to Social Justice

By Joseph E. Miller

David Wolper (left) and Robert Guenette.

There are certain names that always come to mind when you think of documentary film: John Greerson, Robert Flaherty, Alberto Calvalcante, the Maylses Brothers, Frederick Weitzman and David Wolper, among others. What makes these documentarians special is that they’re more than filmmakers, more than teachers and artists, more than preservationists, scholars and mentors—although they are certainly all of these things. But they’re more than the sum of their accomplishments; they are, in the truest sense of the word, “pioneers,” whose work is marked by firsts: first documentary feature, first feature length cinéma vérité documentary, etc.

Pioneers don’t come along very often, and they don’t achieve that status with a few productions or an award or two. True pioneers slice their way through the wilderness of sameness, inspiring others to follow. They take chances and do things that others say are too difficult, impractical, not accomplishable or just plain impossible. Undaunted by the nay-sayers, they forge ahead, sometimes stumbling, sometimes falling, but always getting up and moving forward—and sharing their knowledge and talents unselfishly. They teach, they write, they create, they mentor and they serve as role models for all documentary filmmakers.

To honor the pioneers in our industry, the International Documentary Association has created “The Pioneer Award,” recognizing those individuals whose accomplishments and contributions to documentary film are so pervasive and so outstanding that no other award presented by the IDA could adequately acknowledge them. The Pioneer Award will only be given in the rarest circumstances, where the IDA Board of Directors feels that special recognition of an individual’s contributions to documentary film is due.

It is only fitting, then, that the first person to be honored with the Pioneer Award be someone who is a filmmaker, a scholar and a mentor. Someone who gives freely of his or her time. Someone whose vision and leadership in the field of documentary filmmaking is unparalleled. Someone who embodies a pioneer in the truest sense of the word.

The Board of Directors of the International Documentary Association is pleased and honored to present The Pioneer Award to Robert Guenette for his outstanding lifetime contributions to the world of documentary film. Robert Guenette is more than an Emmy Award-winning writer, producer and director. He is a teacher and mentor. When you think of Robert Guenette, you can’t help but think of firsts: the first to shoot a theatrical feature docudrama on videotape; the first to create the docudrama; the first to produce a cinéma vérité program for network television.

Guenette has produced documentaries for CBS, NBC, ABC, HBO, PBS and Showtime. His credits reads like a “What’s What” of outstanding productions: Omnibus, Conquest, ABC News Close-Up, CBS’ Eyewitness to History, NBC White Paper, William Faulkner’s Mississippi, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow and They Shot President Lincoln, among many others. Some were live, others shot on film or videotape. In the process he’s won three Emmys, the Directors Guild Award, and numerous national and international awards.

Guenette took his cameras into Africa with Alex Haley to chronicle Haley’s return to Juffure, the village of his ancestors, and he documented the first outdoor rock concert in the former Soviet Union. One of his shows, Monsters, Mysteries or Myths, received an incredible 44 share (31.2) rating, the highest rating ever received by a nationally televised documentary.

As one of the founders of the IDA, Guenette has given tirelessly of his time to the organization for nearly 20 years. As the IDA grew and demanded less of his time, he looked around for new ways to promote documentary film. While producing a documentary on the nonprofit organization Children of the Night, and the subsequent TV movie, Guenette saw the need to bring people together. He introduced a high school program to teach disenfranchised youths in South Central Los Angeles about documentary filmmaking. When the program ended, he founded LAMEC, the Los Angeles Media and Education Center, to help bring people together through the arts and build self-esteem through self-expression. This is work that he continues to oversee to this day.


Joseph E. Miller, the author of more than 150 newsletter and magazine articles, holds an MA in Film from the University of Maryland and is the writer, producer and director of more than 50 documentaries. His producing credits include numerous reality series and three television movies.