Editor’s Note: During Documentary Week every year, the Cinema Eye nominees are taken on a “field trip” around New York City. In a special guest post, “Frame by Frame” director Mo Scarpelli recounts the evening for us.
Shivers course through us as we stand in line on a dark Manhattan street. Faces are alight in anticipation, nervous chatter ricochets the icy sidewalk, and we wait. In moments, we file into obscurity: an unmarked door to a cavernous hallway, where we’re each handed a beak-like mask, then through a heavy velvet curtain to a burgundy lounge. Smoke crawls through dim golden light of suspended lamps and chandeliers. A sultry voice drifts over the crowd from a man on stage cradling a deco microphone, dapper in his 30’s-style suit, gently directing us to have our cocktail, have our fun, but keep our conversations brief because more awaits us soon. A woman in sparkling black finds my hand, winks at me, sashays me to an elevator…
This is no haunted house. This is not the latest “secret” NYC bar.
This is “Sleep No More” — a choose-your-own-adventure performance where visitors don masks and wander a five-story loft to dig through treasures of the timeless Macbeth story.
This is a space where curiosity begets story; where scenes unfold unexpectedly and surreptitiously; where perceptions are warped and challenged. This is a place where each experience is disparate and disjointed as the myriad rooms we explore on our own; yet is cohesive in its intensity, immensity and wonder.
So, yeah — this is actually a lot like watching great documentary movies. In fact, that’s why we’re here. For the docs, that is.
I’m at the 2016 Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, which “recognizes and honors exemplary craft and innovation in nonfiction film” each January, with a slew of events, dinners, endless after-parties and an awards ceremony for filmmakers. This is my first Cinema Eye ever, and I’m in a perpetual state of glow. For four days straight, I’m in the constant company of the most interesting, humble, no-bullshit, adventurous and empathetic humans I know; filmmakers I met this past year on the festival circuit with my film “Frame By Frame,” as well as iconic doc-makers honored as “The Influentials” of documentary filmmaking by Cinema Eye, including D.A. Pennebaker, Barbara Kopple, Steve James, and Chris Smith.
It’s the second official day of Cinema Eye and we’re on a super-secret field trip. We’ve been told to pack light, wear warm clothes, and bring an open mind; all things that I believe come quite natural for doc-makers.
We convene first with Cinema Eye folks — Cinema Eye Founder AJ Schnack, Charlotte Cook, Marshall Curry, Ben Fowlie, Wendy Garrett, Nathan Truesdell, Will Lennon and Caroline von Kuhn — as well as other filmmakers at the Half King, a no-frills Chelsea bar owned by journalist and filmmaker Sebastian Junger (“Korengal,” “Restrepo”). It’s a fitting jumping off point to pay homage to storytellers of the past and present, and my gaze lingers on a photo of Tim Hetherington (“Diary,” “Restrepo”) on the wall as I enter the bar’s back room.
With a toast, we’re off for the night, braving the frigid air for the unknown.
The main event, “Sleep No More,” reveals itself in the aforementioned mystery of a Chelsea loft building. After a quick drink in the lounge, we slide our masks on and we’re off on our own to explore and trail actors who run and spin from scene to scene, room to room. An endless patter of footsteps; haunting music droning over gramophones; intricate vestibules chock-full of artifacts from murky medicine bottles to bloody bathtubs. I’m in a wormhole. I’m meandering, I’m lost, I’m frightened, I’m emboldened by anonymity, and I’m loving all of it.
And really — could there be a more suitable event for this troupe of storytellers? It’s not a stretch to draw a parallel here with what many of us do as filmmakers; we try to disappear, to seek human moments, to follow a morsel of curiosity until it forms itself into a scene, a story, a film.
I picked my way through various rooms before finding a seat in what looked like a hotel lobby. Nothing was really happening here, but I was curious what patience could bestow. In a few minutes, a hotel bellboy emerged from a back room. He held a tense and wordless interaction with a woman in a dress across the desk before turning around and finding his own face in a muddled mirror on the wall. There, he stood and he stared. He lifted his right arm, drew it toward the mirror. He stared deeper into his own eyes, started swaying from side to side… and began to dance with himself.
I felt a voyeur, intruding on this intimate moment of solitude and completely losing grasp that it’s a performance. The mask helped me sink deeply and quickly into this role; but I also felt an uncanny resemblance to what I do as a nonfiction filmmaker. I’m a voyeur by passion (and I suppose by trade); I’m a watcher and an observer of the mundane, the exceptional, the raw, the beauty and the horror that make up a human life. And here, I’m doing this again along with dozens of other filmmakers who know the same feeling so well.
Eventually, I’m guided again by another sparkly woman, this time to an exit. I move my mask down to see familiar faces, and nearly forget they can again see mine. We’re all grappling with words, with divergent stories and questions and impressions.
The night is far from over. We flip our masks back on our skulls like badges of honor, and step into wind-whipped streets for the next stop on the field trip. A perfect dichotomy awaits: college football, beer, and nachos at Legends pub. I have a frosty beer and a warm conversation with a doc-making hero of mine, chit-chatting about everything from first and favorite films he’s ever seen to chummy family stories.
Finally — the piéce de résistance — we head to location number three. I can guess this one, as can anyone who has ever been at a festival with Cinema Eye’s Director AJ Schnack… karaoke. We settle into a room with mics, party lights and plenty of David Bowie tracks at the ready. Trays lined with little whisky shots are passed; walls tumble with room-wide crooning in unison.
Two nights later, we will all sit together at the Museum of the Moving Image to celebrate the Cinema Eye Honors award-winners. We’ll pay tribute to the greats of doc past and celebrate the great leaps documentary films of all kinds have made in this past year. And while the hardware be a coveted prize for any of us, tonight’s field trip brings a distinct feeling that Cinema Eye has built something more than accolades for the filmmaking community. It’s what I and others this week have so aptly described as — “a thing.” (It’s likely we’ve had a couple too many beers to find a more creative name…)
It’s this crafty culling-together of people who do a very strange task of following others around and make a movie out of notions of the truth. It’s building a space where we can share that strange experience with others who understand it. It’s this melding the seasoned filmmakers with the new; a torch-lighting, if not passing (we all want to do this forever, right?). It’s this creating a very purposeful place of fun, art, adventure, and hilarity; a celebration fitting for a ragtag group of artists, journalists, musicians, cinematographers, activists, or just curious people — documentary filmmakers.
We’re grateful for the thing. We need the thing. We need the inspiration, the community, the wind in our sails. Who knew it can come from immersing us in dark corners of a performance play, from sequestering space for wings and beers at the sports pub, from cueing up the next karaoke song? Cinema Eye did. Thank God. What a field trip.