In 2008 A.J. Schnack recruited Thom Powers to start the Cinema Eye Honors to recognize the artistry and craft that go into making documentary films. It’s been said that, “90% of documentary reviews are ‘Do I agree with the politics?’ and ‘Do I like the main character?'” and Cinema Eye wanted to shine light on everything else: non-fiction cinematography, editing, music, graphic design. The movie-making.
That first year, the show was a humble affair, hosted at the IFC Center. I had the honor of presenting the first award at that first ceremony—for Best Debut Feature—to a hilarious (and tipsy) Jason Kohn for his film “Manda Bala.” There was no money for refreshments that night, so I assume he must have packed a flask.
Seven years later, things have changed, and the modest night has grown into nearly a week of events where documentary filmmakers get to run around New York together and forget the struggles and frustrations of their vocation.
This year’s Cinema Eye week began last Sunday with drinks for alumni of Honors past. I was just returning to New York from a week of holidays, though, so for me things began the next day with the “Super Secret Nominee Field Trip.” All of the nominees (I was up for the editing award for my documentary “Point and Shoot”) were invited to a midtown bar and served punch of dangerous and undisclosed potency. We were then herded out onto the street and onto a waiting double-decker bus.
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As we climbed on, I resisted making a dumb inside-documentary joke to A.J. about “The Cruise” (the 1998 film, directed by doc-apostate Bennett Miller, about a brilliantly insane tour guide named Timothy “Speed” Levitch who leads double-decker bus trips around New York). We took our seats and were handed flasks of bourbon (I began to detect a theme) and then– amazingly—were greeted by the wild-eyed “Speed” himself. He led us on a nighttime tour past the Empire State building (“constructed in just fourteen months”), down Broadway (“the old mail road to Albany”) and across the Manhattan Bridge to get pizza at the site of the great Grimaldi’s controversy.
As we peeked into second story windows and noticed for the first time the architecture of buildings I had passed a thousand times, I scolded myself for having smirked at the tourists who take double-decker bus tours. The night ended at a bar in the Meat Packing district (“the Miami Beach of Manhattan”) where I sipped a margarita in honor of the polar vortex outside and talked with Chris Hegedus about the exciting chimpanzee film she is working on with DA Pennebaker.
The next day began early with a lunch where a number of honors were handed out. First was the Legacy Award Winner, which went to the seminal “Paris is Burning.” Twenty-something years after the release, the film’s subjects who sat at my table were as funny and oddly inspiring as ever, and I made a note to put it in my Netflix cue to watch again.
Also honored were the “Unforgettables,” a selection of notable and interesting people who were subjects of this year’s documentary films. My film, “Point and Shoot”‘s “Unforgettable” was in Iraq on a mission he “wasn’t able to talk about publicly,” so he couldn’t be with us, but I had a good time chatting with Brandy of “Actress” and Mark Landis from “Art and Craft.”
And finally, we gave out the Heterodox award—a prize for a fiction film that uses non-fiction elements, style or strategies. I had been on the jury for this award and got to sit next to Josh and Ben Safdie, who directed “Heaven Knows What,” a powerful film in which a young charismatic heroin addict plays a version of herself in a script based on her actual life. They told me they had shot the outdoor scenes—even the closeups– with a 500 mm lens from half a block away.
Richard Linklater, whose “Boyhood” won the award, was there with Ellar Coltrane (the Boy), and gave a sweet, slightly awkward talk that felt more appropriate for a documentary filmmaker than a director preparing to sweep the Oscars (and I mean that as a compliment). He said to me afterward, “It’s funny, when fiction uses documentary elements, people call it creative. But when documentary uses fictional elements people call it cheating.”
I thanked him for his criminally underappreciated film “Me and Orson Welles” which was based on a book by my life-changing 10th grade English teacher, Robert Kaplow, (which I mention here only because I can).
That night there was a party at the Brooklyn Night Bazaar in Williamsburg. Sponsored by the Camden International Film Festival in Maine (one of the true greats), the party felt like it had been air lifted from Down East: an unmarked warehouse with ping pong tables, video screens, and free gin-based drinks (seltzer water was two bucks…). I knew we were still in Brooklyn though, when I saw the coat rack heaped with a hundred winter jackets—every one of them black.
And finally, Wednesday was the Awards show. Now at the Museum of Moving Image in Astoria, it’s a lot less convenient than that first year at the IFC, but it’s a big step up in every other way. The room was full; dress ranged from bowties to bluejeans; and poor, hungry filmmakers enjoyed a full food spread and open bar.
Last year’s show had been a brutal four-hours long, but this year, Andrea Meditch (the Board Chair) told me they had decided that “a good documentary should be 90 minutes or under, and so should a good documentary awards show.”
Sam Green, known for the brilliant “Weather Underground” and a series of “live documentaries” that he performs with a backing band, was the emcee, taking the reins from A.J. and Esther Robinson who had hosted the past few years. He kept things clicking along and the show was over in an hour and ten minutes. (I hesitate to say it out loud, but I heard a few people say afterward, “I think it seemed a little short this year….”)
Laura Poitras’ juggernaut, the terrific “Citizenfour” swept most categories (including, yes, Editing). And at the end of the night, when documentary lions, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker gave the award for best documentary, Penny tore open the envelope, smiled and just said, “Ah, Laura…” And the applause began.
It had been a packed few days, but as I looked around the room there was a glow among so many friends and so many of my documentary heroes.
I’ve often thought even ragtag gatherings of documentary filmmakers are more fun than gatherings of fiction filmmakers. In fiction film, there are so many trappings—money, glory, champagne and supermodels—that attract the wolves. But in documentary film, there’s none of that, so the wolves stay away. The only people who make docs are people who are curious about other people and just like making documentaries.
The same can be said about the Cinema Eyes. It is amazing that a team of people—led by AJ, Andrea, Esther, Will Lennon, Nathan Truesdell, and Charlotte Cook, but including a whole lot more—put this whole thing together every year for no pay, no career advancement, no reason at all, except that they like documentary films and, in the coldest, darkest time of the year, they want to give a little boost to documentary filmmakers.