Cara Mertes is the director of JustFilms, the Ford Foundation’s creative visual storytelling initiative. She was presented with the Leading Light Award at DOC NYC, which “is given to a mid-career professional who serves documentary outside of being a filmmaker.” Before starting at the Ford Foundation, Cara served as director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and Fund, and prior to that, as the executive producer of the PBS documentary series, POV.
Her fierce support for and contributions to documentary film is truly heroic.
It was a pleasure to speak with her on the phone.
What was your first job? And how did you get into the nonfiction film world?
I started waitressing at the age of 13 in Kansas. That taught me a lot about providing things to people on time and on budget. It was excellent training for being a producer. I waitressed for about ten years, all the way through college, because I had to pay for it all. The first job I had in the field was as an intern at WNET in New York, which I arranged my final semester of college. I really learned about every aspect of producing and curating at my early days at WNET-- that was probably where I first understood the power of independent film. My job as the curator of Independent Focus covered all forms of media: animation, experimental film, and documentary. So I was curating a lot of work that was short form, long form, coming from all different kinds of artists. I did that for about 5 years. That was an excellent training ground for understanding what has occupied me since then, which is how to support original voices, and how they can reach mainstream audiences with maximum impact.
Over the course of your career of supporting original voices, how have the contributions of women, and how has the documentary community’s support of women, changed?
Women have always been an incredibly strong part of the documentary world, although it will tend to be men, specifically white men, who receive a lot of the accolades. But women have been there since the beginning. Women are most of the creative producers, and many fantastic directors are coming up. Over time, we’re seeing many more women directors and women directors of color. There’s been a concerted effort to develop those voices, and provide opportunities for people who are underrepresented in terms of the stories being told. That has changed a lot of the past 20, 25 years.
Was there singular moment, or has that been a longer transition to make that concerted effort to support more historically marginalized voices?
I think it’s grown over time. The thing I talked about in my DOC NYC acceptance speech that was a pivotal moment for me was the effect of Tongues Untied, which fueled what is now known as the culture wars. There was a lot of resistance to it, but there was also tremendous amount of support from surprising places. You could really see the fault lines of the national discourse, and the challenges we faced in 1989, ‘90, and ‘91. And we’ve seen tremendous advances in diversifying the discourse, and we’ve also obviously seen a lot of backlash and lot of setbacks. But overall, we have a more diverse set of perspectives that are being represented overall in the documentary field. We have a long way to go still. It’s still a white dominated practice, and it’s still a practice of people who can afford it.
I had the great benefit of working for several women in my early days at WNET who expressly mentored other women. And it’s something I’ve tried to do myself when I build a staff or when I build a team. Women mentoring women and increasing those circles of mentorship and those networks is extremely important to building the kind of leadership talent and artistic talent that we’re seeing come up in this community now. I look at it as a common exchange, not necessarily a top down kind of mentorship situation. If we don’t learn from all of the knowledge in the room, you’re leaving a lot on the table.
What projects have had a unique or special impact on you that you’ve contributed to or support?
There is a type of project, and a type of maker, that I find profoundly important to work with, and those are the filmmakers who work over the course of decades on a single project. Their work continues to come back to an exploration of certain questions they’ve set up for themselves. They work across a number of projects or they take a very long time on their projects. These are the most difficult makers to support, especially in the early days because their projects may take 5 or 10 years to see fruition, but I think they’re the most impactful. These are people like Ellen Kuras, Yance Ford, Thomas Allen Harris, Laura Poitras, and James Longley. There are many more I could name. With them, there’s a dedication to a very in depth exploration of social and artistic and creative questions. In other words, they build a career, not just a project.
Why do you believe in documentary? What is it about stories that are true and are about real life that is significant?
I worked with all genres originally. I think I became attracted to the power of nonfiction because of that relationship to the real and the unknown. The form speaks to me about the things that are hidden, underserved, and underrepresented. They’re the underdog stories. I think that in any society, you need a mechanism to lift up those voices, and to bring those voices into a larger conversation about what makes a good society. Nonfiction is an excellent strategy to do that. And it’s powerful. All forms of storytelling rest in the imagination and the ability to imagine new worlds, and nonfiction, because it has a relationship to something that has actually happened, or perspectives that reflect some kind of real condition in the world, has an extra gravity.
Right now, we have this situation where truth itself is under assault across the world, and documentary has a very important role to play. It’s linked to journalism, and fact finding and storytelling, but it has the extra dimension of the imaginary in it, in terms of creative storytelling, and that makes it a very powerful instrument for truth telling in a society that is really desperate for it.
What makes a good story? Is it the maker, or is there something intrinsic to a good nonfiction story?
It combines the power of the imaginary with something that has happened in the real world. And the storyteller is the one who brings their experience and their creativity to it. Hopefully audiences find that. I don’t think a good nonfiction story has to be mainstream. I don’t think it has to have a broad audiences. I think it has to be true to the artist's intention.
In this age of fake news, outlandish politics and the watershed reveal of sexual harassment, what else is exciting about the ability of nonfiction now, and for the future?
I think it’s the ascendant genre. We live in a visual age-- it is the most compact, efficient, scaleable form of storytelling. In a global context that is undermining any sense of what’s real and what’s true. So that’s exciting. And I think many people are being drawn to it because of that. It’s an incredibly elastic form-- it absorbs a lot of experimentation. And what I think is going to be exciting about it in the future is what we know about telling stories that have some relationship to the truth or truths--I think we’re going to have to carry those lessons into the immersive storytelling space. We’re going to have even more critical questions to answer in terms of the ethics and impact of storytelling. Immersive storytelling -- if we think onscreen storytelling is powerful-- is exponentially more powerful for humans to experience. I think lessons learned from documentary to date, over the last 100 years, are going to be extremely informative, in terms of how we handle the immersive story world.
Are there risks documentary is vulnerable to given current political climate, combined with the experimental nature that more people are approaching documentary with?
There have always been risks with any kind of visual storytelling from the beginning. There are the extremes, like being used for propaganda, and using the power of this kind of storytelling to promote the kinds of power and corruption we’ve seen take root. Leni Riefenstahl is the example people point to. The ability of this form to carry a message of demagoguery, fascism, or authoritarianism is extremely powerful. Which is why we have a whole study of ethics and accountability of documentary practice. And those two strands have been there since the beginning, and they continue today.