DOC NYC’s Visionaries Tribute, held on Friday, was one of the most significant gatherings of documentary filmmakers in history. The event was host to the likes of Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Barbara Kopple, Dan Cogan, Rory Kennedy and Michael Moore, who all took part in this year’s tribute to documentary film and the extremely talented filmmakers who have made doc history.
The afternoon featured four awards, one of which, the Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence, was a new addition this year. That award was presented by James Marsh (director, “The Theory of Everything”) to Laura Poitras, whose film “Citizenfour” has been a much talked about shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.
Though Poitras couldn’t attend, her cinematographer Kirsten Johnson read a statement on her behalf. “Receiving this award in Robert Drew’s name is a true honor,” she said. “My work is built upon his vision and artistry…I discovered cinema verité twice, the first time as a viewer then later holding the camera. When I tell people I make documentaries they often respond, ‘Oh you should interview so and so.’ I have to explain no, that’s not what I do. I make films that happen in the present tense, when the future is unknown and uncertain. Thank you to Robert Drew and his family.”
The Leading Light Award was presented by Rory Kennedy (director of “Last Days in Vietnam”) to Dan Cogan, executive producer of opening night film “Do I Sound Gay?” as well as other doc fest favorites from this year such as “Meet the Patels” and “Vessel.” Friday just so happened to be Cogan’s birthday and Kennedy led the crowd in a rousing “Happy Birthday” sing-along before presenting him with the award.
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“It’s hard to speak right now!” Cogan said. “I am deeply humbled. But when you’re in a room with people like Chris [Hegedus] and Penny [D.A. Pennebaker] and Al Maysles and someone like Michael Moore is there, honor doesn’t cut it. These are extraordinary artists whose cultural and political significance has been astonishing.”
Two Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented; the first by Barbara Kopple to legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles, whose films “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens” changed the face, and path, of documentary filmmaking.
“Two words,” began Maysles, “devotion and love. The very medium of documentary offers us the opportunity to make real the biblical expression asking us to love our neighbor. It gives us the knowledge of our neighbors far and wide. Knowledge by which we can love our neighbors. Thank you very much for this award. Thank you very much indeed.”
Maysles’ only equal in both prestige and age was the second recipient, D.A. Pennebaker, who, along with his spouse and filmmaking partner Chris Hegedus, was presented with the second Lifetime Achievement Award from Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore.
“They are such good and gentle a kind and helpful people,” Moore said about Hegedus and Pennebaker. “So many filmmakers, probably so many in this room, have much to thank them for. What they did to save us from the documentary as it was known in the 1940s and 50s… If they hadn’t come along…the documentary would essentially be nature films from the National Film Board of Canada, no offense.”
Hegedus and Pennebaker accepted their award together. “It’s really overwhelming for me to get this award in front of all of you filmmakers and friends,” Hegedus said. “When I was young I didn’t really know that women could make films. I didn’t know of any women role models in Hollywood. But luckily in the late 60s, early 70s, women started having careers, and filmmaking was one of them. For me today, just seeing all of these women in the documentary field is so gratifying for me.”
“One of the accomplishments,” Hegedus went on, “is that during our struggles in the editing room we haven’t gotten divorced yet!” The crowd roared with laughter as Pennebaker added, “Lawyers are standing by!”
“I feel like it’s Thanksgiving and I’m looking out at my eight child and their 13 grandchildren and they’re all waiting for me to say something they wanna hear,” Pennebaker said. “I feel like I’m with a big family. Somehow you’re all my children, which is ridiculous.”
Pennebaker then went on to explain the challenges he faced early on in his career. “People said, ‘ Why are you doing this? The theaters aren’t going to run them. Television you can’t even get anybody on the phone.’ And I had no answer, but I couldn’t stop doing it. It was like an itch.”
No doubt many documentary filmmakers in the room felt exactly the same way.