Each January, the Cinema Eye Honors allow the documentary community to celebrate the non-fiction achievements of the previous year with more energy and authenticity than any of the season’s other, bigger awards shows. In many ways, the 14th edition — which took place at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens on Monday night — was a typical example, a loose production filled with jocular moments unique to the tight-knit non-fiction crowd. But it wasn’t devoid of somber moments.
The audience was filled with accomplished documentary filmmakers who cheered on their peers as they won in categories that ranged from cinematography to editing and graphic design, spreading the love for documentary achievements on virtually every level of the production process. As usual, the ceremony eschewed star power for presenters from the documentary world, including its host.
While the past five years have been hosted by “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James, he was replaced this year by Yance Ford, whose personal documentary “Strong Island” won several awards at the ceremony in 2018 and went on to score an Oscar nomination. Ford, who took the stage in a large cowboy hat and wore dark shades for most of the show, generally struck a playful note: Early on, he cut off a video greeting from James, dropping jokes about passing the baton from aging white man with dad jokes to a new generation.
However, in Ford’s opening remarks, he struck a sobering note that put the room on notice. After noting recent headlines about court cases related to sexual assault accusations against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, Ford turned to Morgan Spurlock. Last fall, the former documentary A-lister released “Supersize Me 2: Holy Chicken!” two years after he revealed in a blog post that a woman he slept with in college “believed she was raped” and that he realized he was “part of the problem.” Spurlock resigned from his Warrior Poets production company, his sequel was pulled from Sundance, and YouTube announced it would not release the film.
“I just don’t know why we don’t talk about Morgan Spurlock, why we don’t talk about the things we make films about that actually happen in our community?” Ford said as the boisterous room suddenly went quiet. “I wonder why the silence?”
Spurlock eventually released the movie in December through a deal with Samuel Goldwyn Films. During that time, he conducted several interviews discussing how his post destroyed the company and expressed contrition for his actions. “I felt I have said things and had behavioral missteps that are just as upsetting and problematic and looking back I’m upset about them,” he told Business Insider. “I felt I should just admit this, I should own up to it. I should say that I can do better.”
In a Jezebel story following Spurlock’s confession, the company was documented as a “fratty, boys’ club” with anonymous former employees claiming that “garish and gross’ nude paintings hung in the office, alcoholic drinks were pushed on employees whether they wanted them or not, and women’s appearances were frequently and openly commented on by both Spurlock and his COO Jeremy Chilnick.”
Ford accused his peers in the documentary world for avoiding the topic. “Statistically, we know sexual assaults mostly go unreported, and we can’t pretend the documentary community is immune from this statistic,” he said. “Silence is powerful, but the best weapon to fight this silence is to break it. We all know that there are people living in silence in all positions across the documentary film world. Imagine if we had the courage as an industry, if we acted as a community, to say #UsToo — so that those people would not be alone. Imagine how we would grow stronger as an industry and a community if we said loud and clear that we value people’s autonomy, that we understand consent, and that we are a space for a survivors as well.”
It wasn’t the only emotional moment of the evening. The night’s big winners were co-directors Julia Reichert and Steve Bognar, whose “American Factory” won both Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking and Outstanding Achievement in Directing. The Netflix release, about a former General Motors plant resurrected by a Chinese manufacturer, recently made the cut on the documentary shortlist for the Oscars.
It was powerful night for Reichert, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy for cancer that surfaced last fall. (She previously struggled with the disease in 2006, when the couple’s documentary “A Lion in the House” premiered at Sundance.) In 2019, Reichert celebrated her fiftieth year as a documentary filmmaker with a touring retrospective, and she received a standing ovation at the start of the ceremony for making the trip from Ohio in the midst of her treatment.
When Reichert, bald from her treatment and dressed in a glittery dress, took the stage with Bognar for their first award of the night, she often sounded on the verge of tears as she expressed her gratitude to the room. “I’m very grateful to Cinema Eye’s creators so that we can trade stories and celebrate each other and be together and build our solidarity,” she said. “Yes, we’re community, but solidarity goes further. We’re going to need that.”
She then addressed her own history in the documentary world, which included mentors like D.A. Pennebaker, who died last year. “This is my beloved community,” she said. “I was welcomed in here as a girl, really, by people like Willard Van Dyke, Emile de Antonio, Ricky Leacock, and of course Penny. I could mention others. I think we should continue that tradition of always welcoming the young ones and making them feel the solidarity we feel about the importance of telling the truth.” She also singled out Netflix, which acquired “American Factory” at Sundance, for supporting her during her illness. “They’ve shown how much they care about me, personally,” she said. “So many of you have.”
Another poignant highlight came earlier in the evening, when Godfrey Reggio accepted the Legacy Award. The 79-year-old experimental filmmaker best known for 1982’s “Koyaanisqatsi” and its two sequels joked about always working with people more talented than he was before turning to the filmmakers in the room. “I know that you like I am committed, not with grace and gratuity, but like to an insane asylum, to make these films,” he said. “If you weren’t, you couldn’t do it. I always say to filmmakers, if you can’t do anything else in life, then you’re ready to be a filmmaker. That’s what it takes.”
Read the full list of Cinema Eye Honors winners right here.