Dana Heinz Perry ’85 earns Oscar nod for documentary with personal touch

Dana Heinz Perry ’85 wins Oscar for documentary with personal touch

Dana Heinz Perry '85 (center, in black) and Ellen Goosenberg Kent produced the HBO documentary
Dana Heinz Perry '85 (center, in black) and Ellen Goosenberg Kent produced the HBO documentary "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1," which won an Academy Award.

Never afraid to tackle a difficult subject, Dana Heinz Perry '85 turned the focus of her latest documentary film, "Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1," to the alarming rate of suicides amongst U.S. military veterans.

The powerful film, directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent, has received critical acclaim and took home an Academy Award in the Documentary Short Subject category. The award was announced during the Oscars telecast on Sunday, Feb. 22.

We caught up with Perry after her Oscar win. Find out what she had to say.

Perry's first Oscar, the documentary focuses on the Veterans Crisis Line in Canandaigua, N.Y. The center — open 24 hours a day, every day — receives roughly 22,000 phone calls each month from veterans in need of help, from financial hardships to individuals on the verge of suicide.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans commit suicide each day — nearly one every hour.

"These people are heroes," said Perry of the responders. "They're handling people who are literally on the verge of taking their lives. They show tremendous empathy and calm." Perry said that due to privacy restrictions, the voices of the callers cannot be recorded, but the "pain and isolation" can be felt through the responders.

The film, which aired on HBO, is also nominated for an Emmy Award; additionally, Perry received a 2014 Gracie Award for Outstanding Producer.

The subject of the film is one close to Perry’s heart — her son, Evan, committed suicide in 2005 at age 15. Perry and her husband, Hart, produced the 2009 documentary "Boy Interrupted" about Evan’s life and his struggle with mental illness. The film, aired on HBO, garnered critical acclaim and was screened at the Sundance Film Festival.

Perry, who has volunteered with suicide prevention agencies since her son’s death, admits that the Oscar nod is an honor, but bringing attention to an important social matter is more important.

"I never make films trying to win anything," she said. "With this film, I was trying to start a conversation about the psychic tolls of war. It’s a timely issue."

Perry's aspiration to focus her films on societal topics, she said, stems from anthropology classes she took as a student at Connecticut College. An anthropology minor (and a dance major), Perry said she always looks at films as an anthropological study, bringing the viewer a better understanding of human behavior.

That mindset has served her well since she ended her dream of dancing shortly after college and entered the film industry. Perry got her start as an intern at a film archive in New York City, before meeting Hart, an established filmmaker, and starting their own company, Perry Films, in 1989. The tandem’s credits include the "American Masters" on PBS, "Motown 40" on ABC and "And You Don’t Stop: 30 Years of Hip Hop" on VH1.

As she headed to her first Oscars — and already excited she was able to sit next to Clint Eastwood at a nominee event — Perry liked her film’s chances against a field of well-made documentaries.

"I've always been the bridesmaid, never the bride," she said before her victory.

"Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1" is currently available on HBO's on-demand service, HBOGo.

February 19, 2015