On Friday night, I headed to the Times Center in, of all places, Times Square for the third annual Cinema Eye Honors, an evening celebrating the craft of non-fiction filmmaking. I have served on the Nominating Committee for the Cinema Eye Honors since its inception (a huge honor to be invited to participate) and these awards, along with my role as a nominator for the Gotham Awards, are among the two great professional pleasures of my year. I hadn’t been to the Gotham Awards in over a decade until this year (it was lovely) and now, since the Cinema Eye Honors moved to January, I was finally able to attend the ceremony itself. All I can say is, as long as AJ Schnack, Thom Powers, Esther Robinson, Andrea Meditch and the rest of the organizing committee will have me, I will do whatever I can to see this orgainzation survive and thrive. Despite the cynicism of some who see the move to January as a way to get the awards in front of the Oscar, on the night, the point was completely moot; The Cinema Eye Honors are all about community building and celebration. How to tell the difference? While most award events focus on red carpets and celebrity turnout, flashy PR events seeking to venerate the already venerated, the Cinema Eye Honors serve the singular purpose of casting a spotlight on the people who make the non-fiction filmmaking community tick, a noble mission if ever there was one.
Of course, this can lead to a little bit of inside baseball at the event itself: witness AJ Schnack, who hosted the event, playing a game of MAD LIBS by calling on a random selection of members of the audience. The reason the gag worked? Because AJ could simply look around the auditorium and call on familiar faces. Why? Because everyone in the audience was a familiar face. Literally.
For me, this is one of the most important aspects of the event. Without the support of the documentary community, the whole evening might seem a bit odd. Instead, because of that support, it feels nothing but special, which is nearly an impossible feat for an event in an industry hell-bent on awarding itself into oblivion. This is primarily driven by two factors; the Cinema Eye Honors deciding to award trophies in the areas of editing, cinematography, score, graphics and animation, all of which are crucial to the sucess of a given film and none of which get attention in the mainstream film industry (due to the complete exclusion of these artists from “fiction only” craft categories at other awards programs), and the unique position of non-fiction filmmaking to have a few of its pioneering artists still with us, many of whom attend the Cinema Eye Honors year after year. It was most heartening to see Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles, Peter Davis and Ross McElwee, each with her or his own contribution to the art of documentary, surrounded by hundreds of people who have contributed to the blossoming of what once must have been very lonely work. I can only imagine how they felt, looking out over a big, full room inside the Times Center (a lovely theater by the way), and thinking about the form they helped create, now thriving in numbers and quality (and box office in some cases). It was Peter Davis who was most eloquent in discussing this growth, directly addressing the community and reminding everyone to keep working toward depicting an emotional reality without relying too much on the Hollywood tricks of the trade that can blur the lines between truth and entertainment.
As the award winners came forward, men and women from all over the world, representing a wildly diverse set of nominees, it was incredibly heartening to watch documentary celebrate itself, on its own terms and in its own unique way. More than the thrill of victory, it was the reality of the show itself that was the most profound. Congratulations to all and I look forward to another rousing success in 2011.