Cinema Eye Award StatuesSo, how about those Golden Globes! What, who cares? That’s right — all of you doc lovers know that the real big night in documentary film wasn’t in L.A. on Sunday (the Hollywood Foreign Press doesn’t even have a nonfiction filmmaking category) — it was last Friday, when the third annual Cinema Eye Honors took place at New York City’s Times Center. And I have to admit I’d never thought I’d see the day, but I actually attended a doc event where I felt I underdressed. The doc community was in fine form, with skinny guys in skinny suits and expensive glasses, and women on some serious, if teetering, heels.

I attended the first Cinema Eyes at the IFC Center in 2008, and this affair definitely was quite a step up. The Times Center (where last year’s event took place as well) has a very modern, expensive vibe; it felt like the Cinema Eye folks had traded in their futon for a real bed. Which is not to say the atmosphere was stuffy. Co-chairs and founders AJ Schnack and Esther Robinson, who emceed the event, were dressed to the nines, but they kept things loose, with Schnack acknowledging the “inherent bull***t” of an awards ceremony early on.

Things remained lively throughout (okay, there were some lags, but that can happen at any awards event — I recall temporarily nodding off at the Oscars one year). Schnack worked the audience with some wacky humor, like a Mad Libs moment that was inspired, if a little long; less popular was his walking out with a bucket of KFC after Food, Inc. was presented. The overall atmosphere was very much one of community and mutual appreciation — with a strong dose of you’ve come a long way, baby. (Although veteran Ross McElwee insisted that production values aren’t everything, I noted several audience members salivating at the prospect of being able to afford the day rate of the efficient steadicam-equipped cameraman who was on hand to record the event.)

Several key recipients may not have been in attendance (directors Agnes Varda and Louie Pshoyos), but there were plenty of docerati to take up the slack, including Amir Bar-Lev, James Toback and Jason Kohn. Most impressive was the old school turn-out: Albert Maysles paid tribute to the late Allan King (1930-2009); and Barbara Kopple honored McElwee for his film Sherman’s March. Peter Davis (Hearts and Minds), who was a presenter, said the event made him wish “it could be happening 25 years ago,” when he was breaking new ground.

The CoveThe Cove, Burma VJ, and October Country racked up the most awards.
I thought it was interesting, and reassuring, that the jury was willing to reward what I gather they deemed truly the best in filmmaking, rather than what they thought should win for some other reason. A ceremony like this could easily play favorites, but I think the jury truly celebrated the best documentaries of 2009, just as they have done in previous years. We also can’t ignore the notion that if the Cinema Eye consistently predicts the Academy Award for Best Documentary, the honor will earn prestige with the larger public. This notion may turn off some folks, just as it may turn others on.

The evening did have this one kind of creepy moment when presenter Sloane Klevin, editor of Taxi to the Dark Side, gave a shout-out to Maysles, informing him that she can observe him washing dishes in his kitchen from her apartment window. It was a fun and funny revelation until she kept going, and the moment became too intimate and revealing. I’m not sure I really should know that Maysles does his own dishes, although I am strangely glad that I do, as it humanizes him.

And isn’t it ironic how appropriate this little tidbit is? After all, this is a medium that is all about exposing real lives to a general public. And sometimes about making the comfortable uncomfortable. I wonder how Maysles felt about it.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen