The documentary universe has changed radically over the past dozen years. No longer the domain of a few cable channels or public television stations, no longer bound by the old cinema verite rules of engagement, non-fiction filmmaking has spent the past decade bursting out of the low-budget indie sidelines into mainstream acceptance, adopting tricks and tropes from fiction and series storytelling as directors capture audience attention from all over the world.
One force for change throughout has been the Cinema Eye Honors, an awards body created in 2007 by a group of independent filmmakers. Led by Los Angeles documentary filmmaker A.J. Schnack (“Kurt Cobain About a Son” and the recent “30 for 30” entry “Long Gone Summer”), the Cinema Eye Honors have led the charge in shaking up conversations about the types of non-fiction storytelling that were worthy of celebration.
“It was a reaction to what was happening elsewhere in the field,” Schnack said in a recent interview with IndieWire. The year the awards launched, Schnack had been on the Independent Spirit Awards jury for the Truer than Fiction Award, which picked a shortlist of 15 of the year’s top films from emerging filmmakers. “It had been a really exciting year for nonfiction film, particularly a lot of young new voices who were coming into the documentary world with great films,” he said, but not one of those 15 films were IDA nominees or on the Oscar shortlist.
“It was a perfect storm. It felt like there was a real space and need for a different voice that was maybe looking at documentary in a slightly different way,” said Schnack. He ticked off a range of programmers, from TIFF’s Thom Powers to then-SFFILM programming head Rachel Rosen, True/False’s David Wilson, and former SXSW producer Matt Dentler, all of whom agreed with the sense that documentaries resonated on the festival circuit weren’t finding that same support in awards season — in part because the Best Documentary field wasn’t sufficient to salute the scope of the work involved in documentary production.
“There was no real space, no year-end awards, to recognize craft in documentary,” Schack added.
Back then, the Producers Guild didn’t give a documentary award, nor did the cinematographers. “There was a general dissatisfaction with the way that nonfiction films were represented during awards season,” wrote festival programmer Rosen in an email. “Most notably that no other organization, even those that concentrated exclusively on documentaries, gave awards across multiple crafts groups.”
ANTHONY BEHAR/SIPA USA
Those conversations yielded the first edition of the event in March 2008. (The name Cinema Eye was inspired by Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov who, with 1929’s “Man with a Movie Camera,” was one of the earliest innovators of documentary form.) The Cinema Eye Honors always presents a long, inclusive set of awards. The show is held in New York, which is why Schnack originally brought in New York documentary programmer Powers, who now runs DOC NYC in addition to his TIFF duties.
“We reached out not only to programmers,” said Schnack, “but folks who were smart documentary viewers and curators, and asked them if they would be part of this nominations committee.”
To this day, a small core team works year-round to mount the awards, and manage different committees comprised of about 70 people who contribute their time and effort to coming up with nominees and helping to put on the event. It’s a true community organization, and that part of Cinema Eye Honors never changed. “We still have a nominations committee of festival programmers, people who’ve been looking at films all year,” said Schnack, “who’ve been thinking about them for their own audiences, and watching them, not just in the context of awards, but in the context of programming a slate for their festivals.”
That’s the secret sauce for Cinema Eye’s success and longevity. “They have done such a great job collectively,” said Schnack. “They don’t talk about it together, we don’t have Zoom meetings or conference calls. They vote up their passions for the films that they love.”
Distributors were skeptical of the awards show at first. “We had to prove our ourselves,” said Schnack, who relied on fledgling online distributor IndiePix at the start to keep them afloat, risking the perception that Cinema Eye was just a scrappy upstart. Later, the awards show earned continuing long-term support from HBO, Netflix, Hulu, and more.
One of the first breakthrough moments was in Cinema Eye’s fourth year, when Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop” won the top prize (and went on to snag an Oscar nod). “Jaimie D’Cruz, the producer, read Banksy’s acceptance speech,” said Schnack. “And someone was there and transcribed it and recorded it somehow online. That was the first time I felt like something big had happened.”
Watch how Cinema Eye Honors was first conceived and executed, along with some of its most iconic highlights, in the video below.
The event also found support from documentary icons Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker, who regularly attended during the final years of their lives. The duo shared the stage for the last time in 2014 to give the top prize to Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour,” which went on to win the Oscar. “That was a beautiful, special moment,” Schnack said. “Three giants of documentary filmmaking on stage together. It’s those generational moments.”
And Cinema Eye has slowly, over time, changed all the awards shows around it. The Academy documentary branch has revised its rules to make it easier for more members to watch more movies and vote in their passionate favorites. The IDA has also added more categories over the years to include more crafts. Many recent documentary Oscar nominees and winners line up with the Cinema Eyes.
While the expansion of both groups might have diminished the role of Cinema Eye Honors, the world still needs them. That’s because as the documentary field exploded over the past decade, Cinema Eye took on another purpose as a gatekeeper, curator, and culler of quality titles, so that the best movies would be brought to the attention of awards voters, out of a vast sea of possibilities.
“There’s been a lot of overlap between the films that get nominated at Cinema Eye and films that are shortlisted,” said Schnack. “We have a stronger record than any other organization or group that does year-end awards. But I’m equally excited and proud of those films that aren’t recognized anywhere else. It’s the chance for them to be part of the conversation, to have an event that they are fully engaged in, even if they’re not on the shortlist, or not up for some other award.” Frequent Cinema Eye Honors winners Bill and Turner Ross (“Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets”), for example, have yet to land an Oscar slot.
Most awards groups focus on directors, so Cinema Eye also turned its attention to craftspeople, like graphic designers and editors, who also came together. “It’s seeing those people are taken care of and treated the same as the Julia Reicherts and the Lucy Walkers of the world,” said Schnack. “A few years ago, we had two small European films, ‘Communion’ and ‘Distant Barking of Dogs,’ both of which were Cinema Eye nominees, but both also were on the Academy shortlist. And that was super exciting to me. I thought like, that would be great if every year you know, there’s two films like that, the unexpected, great films.”
Rosen sees a Cinema Eye impact on the community. “It has succeeded in its main goal of providing a platform to recognize some bold and innovative craft-oriented non-fiction that has not been recognized by other awards,” she wrote, “to call attention to the broader creative team behind documentary films.”
And of course the Cinema Eye Honors has adapted to the new streaming universe by adding series. “The committees have gotten larger and we’ve tried to make it more international and less homogenous,” said Schnack. “We have expanded awards for broadcast and there’s so much is happening in the streaming space with series and films.” There are five discrete episodic awards. “We have more submissions in for broadcast than we’d ever had before this year,” he said, noting the addition of the Spotligiht award “to make sure that we have a light on films that aren’t getting the big attention from their distributor or from festivals.”
The immediate practical upside of these awards shows, like the guild awards, is that they bring people together to meet each other in person and network. Cinema Eye throws a Los Angeles nominees lunch every year as well as the New York award show. The social opportunity is especially welcome by the documentary community now after the pandemic put a stop on in-person events in 2020.
“For a lot of people, it’s this chance to meet other filmmakers who’ve been on the same kind of journey that they’ve been on. And whether you first met on Main Street in Park City or at Buges in Colombia or at a brewery in Durham, it’s those relationships that sustain you, as you’re going to go back out and make another film. And the people who you’ll call when you have a question,” Schnack said.
Even now, there’s nothing quite like Cinema Eye. “The thing I treasure most about Cinema Eye is its dedication to the multiple crafts of doc making — producing, cinematography, editing, composing,” Powers told IndieWire. “One year, Fred Wiseman’s longtime cameraperson John Davey was nominated and he explained it was his first time getting any kind of award recognition after decades of work.”
He added, “When we started 15 years ago, I guessed that other awards might jump in on those categories and make Cinema Eye redundant. But that hasn’t really happened and it stands as a unique recognition.” —Anne Thompson