The Oscars can have its annual celebrity luncheon. This week, several documentarians celebrated the Cinema Eye Honors with an after-hours field trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Conceived in 2008 as a bid to broaden awareness for documentary achievements, the Cinema Eyes highlight a dozen categories that range from best director to best cinematography to graphic design. However, while it began as a tonic to the five-nominee limitations that circumscribe the Oscars, the Cinema Eyes have evolved into an idiosyncratic celebration all its own. Although the awards are Wednesday night at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, the ceremony is now only the culmination of a full week of programming that includes three days of activities.
“It’s kind of like senior skip week,” said co-founder and filmmaker AJ Schnack, catching his breath on Monday night before delivering a speech to the filmmakers in attendance. “Yes, there are awards at the end of it. But it’s bigger than that. We all need to come together and say, ‘What was this this year about? What do we do we do together for the year ahead?’ That’s especially important this year.”
Monday’s Whitney visit stemmed from a suggestion from perennial Cinema Eyes advisor and Oscar-winning “Citizenfour” director Laura Poitras. Some two dozen documentarians found themselves exploring the dense exhibition “Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art: 1905-2016,” roaming through complex assessments of the medium’s past and future.
“I thought we were just going for a pub crawl,” said filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, taking a breather before gearing up for the Sundance premiere of his long-gestating Grateful Dead documentary “Long Strange Trip” later in the month. Veteran director Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County USA”) peered into “Crossroads,” Bruce Conner’s haunting 1976 compendium of footage from atomic bomb tests, and muttered, “Frightening!”
Later, the group followed curator Chrissie Iles into a roomful of discarded celluloid that comprised Jud Yalkut’s 1967 destructivist work “Destruct Film.” Iles grabbed a handful of unspooled film and tossed it in the air. “You guys, more than anyone, would appreciate this,” she said. Schnack, a 48-year-old with a jubilant smirk and a bandleader’s rousing spirit, singled out a hefty pile and dove right in, rolling around as the room erupted in cheers.
A few hours later, they gathered at the Chelsea barbecue outfit Hill Country — another surprise — for ample beer, juicy meat, and live-band karaoke. The next day, they would head uptown for a lunch honoring the Cinema Eye’s first Legacy Award Winner, “The Times of Harvey Milk,” and a recognition of the best documentary films of the past decade. The festivities climax Wednesday with the awards and a Netflix-hosted after party.
While the current political climate has become a post-election talking point for the documentary community, Schnack is not a newcomer to that arena. From 2008’s Democratic National Convention portrait “Convention” to his bipartisan 2016 series “Primaries,” the filmmaker has developed a body of work defined by the nature of election cycles and their influence on society. But he has also examined the heartland with a sprawling look at small-town Missouri life in “We Always Lie to Strangers,” which he directed with True/False co-founder David Wilson. “After the election, it was strange to hear people say, ‘We should be making films about that part of the country,’” Schnack said. “Some of us have been.”
He also balked at the idea that all documentarians focus on the concerns of the cosmopolitan elite. “Sometimes, we make films inside bubbles, but we don’t exist inside them,” he said. “We’re constantly going out to places that are uncomfortable to us, that we don’t understand, all over the world.”
This year’s Cinema Eye nominees reflect that assertion. Contenders in the Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking category include “Fire at Sea,” Gianfranco Rosi’s unnerving look at the migrant crisis affecting a small island in Italy, and “I Am Not Your Negro,” in which director Raoul Peck applies James Baldwin’s writings on race in America to a modern-day climate. These films are nestled alongside the decade-spanning “O.J.: Made in America,” “Weiner” and “Cameraperson.” (Unlike a few years ago, however, all of the nominees landed on the Oscars’ documentary shortlist.)
Launched with the support of IndiePix in 2008, the Cinema Eyes helped kickstart conversations about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ approach to selecting documentaries, ultimately leading to a series of rule changes that helped level the playing field. In 2012, the documentary branch announced plans to address documentaries had been left out of the conversation, including Steve James’ “The Interrupters,” Laura Poitras’ “The Oath,” and other films released by companies that couldn’t compete with well-heeled distributors that mounted pricey campaigns.
These additions, which included the Academy’s commitment to sending screeners on a quarterly basis and a shortlist vote by the full documentary branch, led to an Oscars category that has increasingly mirrored the Cinema Eye finalists. By the fourth year, the Cinema Eyes had garnered further sponsorship from the likes of HBO and A&E, further evidence of how the ceremony had caught the eye of the non-fiction community.
Schnack is cagey about its influence. “I feel other awards have moved in our direction,” he said, noting that the nominees for the International Documentary Awards mirrored the Cinema Eye nominees for the first time this year. “It actually worked.”
At the first Cinema Eye Honors, held in March 2008, top prizes went to Jason Kohn’s Brazilian kidnapping exposé “Manda Bala” (“Send a Bullet”), which did not make the shortlist. “When these movies don’t get seen, you feel like you’re fucking losing,” said Kohn (not related to this author) at the time. “You feel like somebody else is winning and that person is no good.” For Schnack, that sentiment remains even as the Cinema Eyes have influenced the Academy’s documentary branch. “How do we engage audiences outside of our bubble to see our films?” he said. “Outside of festivals, how do we engage audiences?”
That brought him back to the incoming Trump Administration. “The election and the new administration loom over everything,” he said. “Whether we consider ourselves to be activist documentarians, journalistic documentarians, or experimental artists — we’re still going to be affected by the ways in which ethics and laws change under the administration.” The Cinema Eyes gathering, he added, was “like a pep rally in the locker room.”
With that, he took to the stage for a boisterous rendition of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So.” A handful of filmmakers, including “Cameraperson” director Kristen Johnson, shimmied to the beat, while others hung back. “Street Fight” director Marshall Curry — who chairs the 2017 edition of the Cinema Eyes alongside producer Charlotte Cook — hovered near the door and smiled.
“This is what I love about this,” Curry said. “It’s not really an awards thing. It’s more like a picnic with your favorite documentary filmmakers.” Nearby, Bar-Lev concurred. “We need less competition,” he said, “not more of it.”