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IDAs Rick Perez on the Dangers of Relying on a Documentary A-List: We Need a Chorus of Diverse Voices

In May, Richard Ray “Rick” Perez became the first person of color to serve as executive director of the Intl. Documentary Assn., taking over for outgoing leader Simon Kilmurry following a six-year run.

A documentary filmmaker turned exec, Perez most recently was the director of acquisitions and distribution strategies at GBH’s World Channel, in charge of curating and acquiring documentaries for the digital platform’s three original series. For seven years prior to that, he served as a director of creative partnerships at the Sundance Institute, where he developed, designed, and led artist-based filmmaking programs, including Stories of Change.

His documentary credits include “Cesar’s Last Fast,” a film about late United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez that he wrote and directed, which premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. His struggles to get that film made, followed by his work at the Sundance Institute, taught him about the need to improve equality for underrepresented filmmakers.

He spoke with Variety about his vision for the IDA’s future, the lack of inclusion in documentary filmmaking and the social consequences of telling nonfiction stories through A-lister lenses.

You are a documentary filmmaker who has also worked with filmmakers on an executive level at Sundance and GBH World. What have you learned by working on both sides of the fence?

It took seven years for me to make a film (“Cesar’s Last Fast”) about an iconic figure in American history. At the time I was making it, I had had plenty of experience as a filmmaker, and I felt like, ‘Wow. It shouldn’t take this long to make a film about this very important person in American history, who happens to Latino.’ Ultimately the film premiered at Sundance but despite that it was difficult for me to make another film and get the funding. The doors weren’t open in a way that I thought they would be. Of course, that was my specific experience, but once I started working at Sundance reviewing the films that the documentary film program was funding, I realized that it wasn’t just me facing these challenges. It was an eye-opening experience to be on the other side of the fence and realize that the challenges that I was facing on my own when I was making films were very common challenges to underrepresented filmmakers and particularly filmmakers of color. I wanted to try to figure out very constructive set of solutions, as in: how can we try to address inequity? This was before the term’s diversity, equity and inclusion were part of the popular lexicon. And what I found is that one of the challenges is that the resources available are finite and the needs are infinite.

You mentioned Sundance funding, which is so competitive. What did you take away from seeing how that process worked?

So, when there was a filmmaker applying — say a first-time filmmaker — members of the review committee were sometimes uncertain about giving a grant. The question of, ‘Do we take a risk?’ would come up. And I would intentionally reverse that question by saying, ‘How can we invest in this filmmaker?’ Because that’s quite a different idea — that we are nurturing and cultivating as opposed to potentially losing something. Of course, all these funds are hugely, hugely competitive. So, there are conscious and unconscious pressures facing the funders. Some of the funders are like, we want to continue to fund very accomplished filmmakers who might be called the A-list. But in continuing to support that A-list, what’s the opportunity cost? Because the resources are finite, the opportunity cost is the inability to invest in newer, more diverse, and more inclusive voices.

As executive director of the IDA, how will you try to make sure that underrepresented filmmakers who aren’t on the A-list are represented?

The general public might not perceive an A-list (in the documentary genre), but there’s certainly what we might call the one percent who are benefiting from the explosive growth in documentary programming and funding happening right now. So, it’s not so much about cultivating new talent that hasn’t been supported. It really is: how can we make the marketplace more inclusive of diverse voices and experienced voices who have not had access to certain resources? What we need is a chorus of diverse voices and inclusive voices because there’s a specific role that a documentary plays in how audiences understand the world. Largely that non-fiction narrative has been seen through a lens of the resourced filmmakers. The problem is that if we only have stories created from that point of view, we have an incomplete and even a distorted understanding and a reflection of the global and the domestic narrative. So, the most important thing for me at the IDA is to build bridges and wider bridges between the independent sector that we traditionally work with and the commercial sector. And those bridges really need to be anchored in equity.

How do you plan on building those bridges within the commercial sector?

We want to be partners with the production companies, the streaming services and the distributors to maximize what their goals are and what our goals are. We have shared interest and common interests. That is how I’m positioning the IDA: we can help. So, we need to figure out how can we all be partners in accountability. How can we be partners around program design and how can we be partners around best practices.

Some production companies and organizations have installed quotas to ensure that people of color are being hired and getting funding. How do you feel about that?

I completely appreciate the quotas but sometimes those quotas appear good and appear like accountability tools but there are always work-arounds which we have seen in the independent sector. For example, there are some nonprofit funds designed for filmmakers of color and a white filmmaker would just go hire a person of color for cosmetic purposes and that person (of color) may not have any real creative contribution. They’re just window dressing to get the money. So, we need to know how to really examine and evaluate genuine inclusion and genuine diversity.

You are the first person of color to serve as the IDA’s executive director. Recently Erika Dilday became the first Black executive director of American Documentary. Do you think putting more people of color in gatekeeper positions will help change documentary landscape when it comes to inclusion and diversity?

It’s part of the solution. Leaders in all these documentaries sectors, their hearts have been in the right place. But yes, there was a curatorial clique, that again was well-intentioned, but what it did was that it prevented access to real influence among people of color. So, when people are trying to introduce equity programs, inclusion programs, diversity programs, essentially what you have is white leaders working on these programs on their terms. What they think is best for communities of color and underrepresented filmmakers. There’s an inherent patronizing perspective there. So – yes – hiring people of color to lead is part of the solution, but in the end, leaders of color are still going to have to deliver success. So, there are multiple layered challenges. There’s no one solution, but part of the solution is doing things differently.

Last year, HBO’s Tiger Woods series faced backlash over the fact that two white men directed the project. That led to the question of who is allowed to chronicle stories outside their race. What is your take on that?

I’m most interested in why people are upset (about it). That’s the deeper question. And they are upset because they don’t have access the way (those two white filmmakers have). The stakes are really about access. Access to resources; being taken seriously; getting the emails returned; being seriously being considered for a project.

Your predecessor Simon Kilmurry said that the dominance of the big streamers can lead to a homogenization in terms of documentary storytelling styles. Would you agree with his assessment?

People who are commissioning and who are acquiring (documentaries) are under pressure to succeed. So, investing in an accurate global non-fiction narrative might not be their priority. But delivering eyeballs to a sexy documentary about a pop musician or a sports figure or something really tabloidy might be. So, there are just very real pressures that (these programmers) are feeling. But there are very real consequences around that pursuit. Because there’s an interplay between society and non-fiction that doesn’t exist in the same way in the scripted arena. It’s a profound question the interplay between non-fiction film, society, and the consequences of a distorted narrative.

During his tenure Kilmurry created more international connections for the IDA by doing events at IDFA and building links with the Documentary Assn. of Europe. Do you plan on increasing IDA’s global connections?

It’s definitely a priority to expand and be more inclusive of international filmmakers by working with organizations. It’s not just a domestic narrative that is at stake. It really is a global narrative.

IDA’s annual Getting Real Conference in Los Angeles was digital last year and had over 3,000 people from 50 countries attend. Normally, when the conference is in-person, approximately 1,000 people attend. Will the conference be hybrid this year to provide more inclusion?

Yes. We’re doing a hybrid event that is accessible for several reasons. Obviously, people want the in-person experience, but what we learned from last year is that because of the reach, particularly the international reach and people who can’t afford to travel domestically to L.A., that we have to make it accessible to the widest number of attendees.

I know it’s been less than two months since you started at IDA, but what’s your sense about actually getting the documentary landscape to open up and become more inclusive?

Cultural shifts are very difficult. Cultural shifts that involve industries that are very comfortable with how they operate and have very specific cultures can be harder to shift. What the IDA wants to do, which is to build these bridges anchored in equity, can be done collectively as a field. We have so many smart people in our industry, in every sector. We are at a pivotal societal moment that we can choose to do the right thing, or we can default to business as usual, and if we do that, we’re going to have this conversation again in five or 10 years.

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