Meredith Vieira of the "Today” show brings her… (NBC photo )
Maryland Film Festival director Jed Dietz needed a smart, distinctive newsperson to host his annual fundraiser's centerpiece attraction. Who could be authoritative and engaging when asking a panel of Oscar-nominated directors, "Are documentary filmmakers the new journalists?"
His top pick was always Meredith Vieira, co-host of "The Today Show" and the host of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."
Viera said Thursday, "I told him it's a little off-point for me because I'm doing a morning show now. I can't speak to what the landscape is like for documentaries at the networks."
Nonetheless, Dietz thought she was the perfect choice. "She has been on the front of 'the change wave' of TV journalism since she started," he said, "and she has obviously not shied away from the entertainment aspect. More than any major player I know, she feels comfortable in both worlds." To Dietz, she's "not unlike Edward R. Murrow," who hosted the current events show "See It Now" and the celebrity-interview series, "Person to Person."
After all, Vieira is a veteran of "60 Minutes" and "The View." In all her roles, she has drawn on her own experience to address an array of subjects in a bright, empathetic, unpretentious manner. She's one "name" broadcaster who actually knows more than she thinks she knows.
"I think the first documentary I ever saw in a movie theater was 'Harlan County, USA,'" Vieira said. "I saw it when I was a reporter in Providence. [The film came out in 1977.] I remember being blown away by that documentarian, Barbara Kopple. And I remember feeling what a brilliant way to watch a documentary — as a theater experience."
Did movie documentaries become popular by aping newsmagazines? After all, Michael Moore turned himself into a character in his movies, much as "60 Minutes" turned correspondents into crusading "personalities."
"How many examples are there other than Michael?" Vieira responded. "The guy who did 'Super Size Me' [Morgan Spurlock] does something like that, where he becomes the personality within the piece. Documentaries always had the reputation of being somewhat dry. Maybe some do take advantage of the television model to draw people in."
Vieira will be talking to three directors — Marshall Curry ("Street Fight"), Rachel Grady (co-director, "Jesus Camp) and Laura Poitras ("My Country, My Country") — whose Oscar-nominated documentaries rely on patient observation, not showboating. That suits Vieira, who believes "the brilliance of great documentary work — and a lot of it is just time-consuming — is waiting for moments and being in a place long enough for people to forget you're there. That's the trick. You become the fly on the wall, that invisible being. People who have a camera in their face — they perform. Something happens to them. But when they forget that it's there — then you can get a little closer to reality.
"Fred Wiseman is the perfect example of that. I used to wait for films like 'Hospital' or 'High School' to come out, because that's what they were about — being in a place long enough so that life unfolds in front of you. Great documentary-makers don't come in with an agenda. They try to find the truth that's there. I'm sure they're amazed at what they find."
The Maryland Film Festival gala starts at 6 p.m. Friday at Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center, 1300 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $90-$250. Call 410-752-8083 or go to md-filmfest.com.