How have documentaries changed the notion of change? That philosophical conundrum animated the lively exchange at the Power of Story: How Docs Changed Change panel at the Egyptian Theatre on Saturday afternoon between moderator Soledad O’Brien and panelists Robert Redford, Sheila Nevins (president of HBO Documentary Films), and Nick Fraser (commissioning editor of the BBC’s Storyville).
“I think it’s impossible to know really what documentaries do,” said Fraser, adding that demonstrable proof of social change can be difficult to gauge. “That’s why documentaries are interesting, because you engage with a documentary and allow them to go in a direction you don’t know about. They may change things, and we hope they do, but that’s not why we watch them, and actually, that’s not really why we love them. We love them because they appeal to our curiosity and common humanity.”
Redford agreed with this assessment: “Feelings about documentaries change over time.” Later during the panel, he recalled going to the movies as a child with his family during World War II and being fascinated by the Pathé news reels that played before the film more than the film itself. From that moment, a love of documentary compelled him to found Sundance Institute and the labs to foster artistic talent. “Right now, documentaries do play a role of penetrating some of the fog that comes out of normal media outlets,” he said. “If there’s something about it that is real, it has an edgy quality.”
Nevins lamented the fact that, despite the popularity of documentaries at the Festival, they’re not popular enough in America at large. Nevins also talked about having to compete with the other divisions of HBO to garner the viewership numbers that feature films and other programming rake in. “Do docus evoke change?” Nevins asked rhetorically, underlining her skepticism with a harsh, but honest observation: “You think you’re making a tsunami, but the reality of the docus is you’ve made a wave,” she said. “Maybe you touch a few, maybe you touch many. We all knows docus that have changed the world, but you can count them on your fingers.”