Producer/ director Mertes finds a home in Maplewood
“In my experience,” says Maplewood producer/director Cara Mertes, “some of the most interesting people have been marginalized in some way. My goal is to bring the perspectives and experiences of these people and communities from the margins to mainstream.” Perhaps that’s why she has made a career of telling other people’s stories.
Though she has won Emmy, Webby and Peabody awards, Mertes understands what it’s like to be marginalized. For much of her childhood in Lawrence, Kansas, her family lived below the poverty line after her mother went through a difficult divorce. Says Mertes, “Being poor can make you invisible. This helped me see that people with few resources are all too frequently overlooked, their stories untold.”
Mertes left Kansas when she received a scholarship to Vassar College, where she studied English, theater and film. This set her on a path toward an impactful career. “Film is a world of escape and imagination,” Mertes says. “It appealed to me. I was excited by the idea of using this medium to lift people up.”
Documentary film has become an increasingly popular tool for advocacy and activism in recent years, as it allows filmmakers to present a clear, compelling narrative that can inspire change and mobilize public opinion. Documentary filmmakers who intimately understand the communities they are profiling are particularly important in this context, as they are able to bring the latter’s experiences to the forefront of public conversation.
Coming to the fore in the 1960s, documentary films frequently focused on nature. A few were created by college students who wanted to make a social difference, but there was nothing like the range and depth that exist in the field today.
The industry had evolved a bit by the time Mertes came on the independent documentary scene in the 1980s. At this point, documentary films were beginning to tell the stories of many of the 20th century major movements for justice; civil rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, the anti-war movement, the environmental movement, and the disability rights movement, to name a few. Mertes wanted to show the richness of the documentary form and widen the breadth of subject matter.
Public television gave her the opportunity to use documentary film for telling people’s stories using their own voices. Mertes particularly loved the inventiveness and courage of independent documentary filmmakers, and was elated when she landed a job in programming at WNET in New York City.
“New York was the perfect place for me. I like to think that New York is where alienated people go to be together,” she says with a laugh. “Part of my job was to look for filmmakers who were telling largely untold stories in original ways,” Mertes adds.
That was the easy part.
“I wanted to know how far I could push the envelope of what was possible to show to a public television audience,” she explains. This was an inspirational time for Mertes, who found artists with messages that hadn’t been told. She worked for years with some filmmakers helping them develop their stories.
“Most of the time when I am identifying powerful and innovative films, I don’t start off saying, ‘this is going to be a hit,’” she says. Her intuition about these stories and storytellers has paid off. After providing support like grants, jobs and advice, many artists have created documentaries that show stunning and unique journeys.
The proof is in the pudding. Mertes’ bio boasts (though she doesn’t) that she has been the executive producer of three Academy Award-nominated films; and as a funder, she has supported a number of Oscar winners and nominees.
“Some stories are most impactful when not told chronologically,” Mertes points out. “These are emotional stories, and work best when not chained to a timeline.” Often it took years of thought and reworking of projects to get the stories ready to be told.
Mertes eventually went to work for the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program, where she helped build and direct a multimillion dollar budget to support up to 50 documentary films annually. Her goal was to expand the creative documentary film industry globally.
After eight years and a lot of frequent flyer miles earned, Mertes returned to New York to work for the Ford Foundation, directing their JustFilms fund for documentaries internationally. Her mission expanded to support dozens of films each year, with subject matter spanning Asia, Africa and the Americas.
The body of work she was responsible for was now enormous. But when asked she pulls out a few she feels moved the needle on public awareness.
Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, by RaMell Ross, is about the lives of black people in Hale County, Alabama. It has a non-linear storyline capturing events from within the community. It is described as “a visual symphony,” was nominated for an Academy Award, and won a Peabody.
Mertes also recommends Strong Island, directed by Yance Ford. This documentary focuses on the murder of a 24-year-old Black teacher and its aftermath. Strong Island was notable for its “unflinching portrayal of the murder.” Additionally, Ford was the first trans director nominated in the field. Strong Island premiered at Sundance in 2017 and was nominated for an Emmy and an Academy Award.
While her success in the world of documentary film is evident, one of the things people don’t know about Mertes is that she is a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures. “When I became a member almost 20 years ago, the documentary branch of the Academy was mostly directors. But people made the case that the Academy needed people who were making comprehensive contributions in other ways.” (Mertes has directed, but spends most of her time producing.) “Since then,” she says, “the flood gates opened. Today the Academy is twice as big as when I joined.”
It may not be a surprise that when Mertes relocated to the New York City area to work at with the Ford Foundation, she and her husband, son and daughter were drawn to Maplewood.
“Maplewood is a town like no other,” she says: a town where it’s easy to find others deeply interested in social justice. And, she adds, “It’s so walkable, there are actual mom & pop shops here, and the power of film is so strong in this community.”
Mertes says she knew she was home when the moving vans pulled away from their new house on Kendal Avenue and the doorbell rang.
“Standing at our door were five kids from the neighborhood. They introduced themselves and asked our kids to come out to play.” Their welcome was genuine and disarming.
In an important way, the people of Maplewood had seen her and her
No longer invisible or overlooked, she’s belonged here ever since.
Adrianna Donat is a freelance writer who lives and writes in Maplewood.