Sheila Nevins brings life to the small screen

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Sheila Nevins has attended every Gotham Awards ceremony since its inception nearly two decades ago. So here's her take on the reasoning behind giving her a Gotham Tribute on Tuesday in New York: "They finally worked their way up to the letter 'N.'"

That kind of dry wit is a characteristic of HBO's president of documentary films, famed in the cable world for being a force of nature who has redefined the doc.

Many executives who had spent 29 years at a network would have moved on or up to actually run the channel, but Nevins started in 1979 as a director of documentary programming and has amassed extraordinary clout and power while remaining more or less in place.

"I like to think I helped make documentaries cool," she says. "It's about covering the entire map of the human experience. When you have the kind of great curiosity that I have, everything can be made interesting -- even a bunch of whores singing Cole Porter while they're at work."

The idiosyncratic and impulsive -- but deceptively tough-minded -- Nevins actually approves of a different title than the one that appears on her business cards: Documentary Dominatrix. She believes that sums up her go-with-the-gut philosophy and engaged style.

"Sheila is almost single-handedly responsible for bringing documentaries into mainstream popular culture," believes Michelle Byrd, executive director of the Independent Feature Project. "Her work has not only changed the documentary landscape, it's opened minds and spurred change."

Taking full advantage of HBO's nearly anything-goes standards in terms of language, nudity and disturbing imagery, Nevins has championed envelope-pushing programming like series "Real Sex" and "Cathouse," plus acclaimed feature docs such as "Addiction" (2007), "Ghosts of Abu Ghraib" (2007), "Baghdad ER" (2006), "Chernobyl Heart" (2003) and "King Gimp" (1999).

"If I have any secret, it's the fact I don't feel I'm any better than the guy clearing dishes in the restaurant," Nevins stresses. "Everybody I meet has a story to tell that I'm interested in, including the doormen and the taxi drivers."

That mind-set has earned Nevins-associated projects 19 Academy Awards, as well as numerous Primetime and News and Documentary Emmys and Peabody Awards (including one awarded to her personally in 2000). But beyond any honors, it's her dedication to the documentary film craft and its disciples that distinguishes her most.

Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, came to Nevins' attention while peddling her 2002 doc feature "Journeys With George," about shooting President George W. Bush with a camcorder during the 2000 presidential campaign. That film, along with Pelosi's subsequent efforts, "Diary of a Political Tourist" (2004) and "Friends of God" (2007), have all premiered on HBO.

"Sheila is singularly amazing because she hands you a blank check after assigning you a project," Pelosi says. "She's built this army of insanely loyal people -- including me -- and the reason is that having support in the world of documentary filmmaking is simply unheard of. Getting a job from her is like winning the lottery."

Adds Oscar-winning director Barbara Kopple, whose work for HBO includes the 2002 doc "American Standoff" and "Addiction": "She has brought important stories out of the shadows and out of the closet and has given voice to the silent. Sheila has given so many opportunities to young filmmakers and has helped them realize their visions. She has personally expanded the audience of nonfiction film like no one else, making it a part of the American cultural landscape, part of the political discussion, part of how we see ourselves and our place in the world."

As for what she does in her spare time, Nevins declares, "I have none. Work is my play. My primary focus in life is how not to screw up this job that's consumed my life. That's why the person I consider my true mentor has to be Scheherazade, the woman who kept telling the king that never-ending story so he wouldn't cut off her head. That's me. With every new project, I'm just looking to keep my head. Literally."
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