On a day when there was such a tragic attack on creative freedom — and, well, life — in Paris, it was particularly heartening to see the documentary film community come together to celebrate nonfiction filmmaking and all of the craft, critical thinking and artistic expression that goes into it. And fun. Cause, dammit, if Charlie Hebdo was about anything, it was (and will be) about seeing the humor in the human condition. And then shedding light in the dark. Docs do that as well as, if not better than, any form. And the Cinema Eye Honors, which took place last night at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, is documentary film’s best moment of the year to honor that sort of thing.
It might be funny to heap praise on such a scruffy event but its preeminence is evident the moment you enter the waiting room, and you see such a wide swath of the documentary community gathering together to celebrate the craft. If there is ever a question whether or not there’s an actual community of documentary filmmakers, the first bit of evidence should be Cinema Eye Honors. Sure, you see it at the festivals but never with this concentration of talent and lack of B.S., which you’re bound to get at other overrun or business-related gatherings.
When the multigenerational element kicks in — legends Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus were all on hand, mixing it up with the younger filmmakers — it makes the point even more clear. I was also happy to see that there was some further expanding of the community, as represented by folks from 20,000 Days on Earth and Virunga, both films made outside of NYC’s insular doc world.
No doubt, it was director Laura Poitras’s night, as her Citizenfour won four awards, including best director and best film. This is clearly her year. She’s returned from exile, and made one of the best films of the year. She used her time at the podium wisely, giving context about living outside of the USA when she couldn’t attend the show last year and giving credit to co-founder AJ Schnack, recalling how the event originally came out of a vacuum when awards shows weren’t recognizing the best accomplishments in non-fiction.
Cinema Eye opened up with Poitras and Steve James, director of Life Itself, engaging in a fun chat before they presented the first awards. It was a sweet reminder that despite the fact that these two filmmakers have the two films with the greatest chance to win the Oscar — and so they are, in fact, competitors — they appear entirely cool with each other. Community, indeed.
The usual refrain — there’s no money in docs — was heard yet again during the evening, and it’s a reasonable statement, and yet I have to wonder if it’s starting to grow a little thin. For some filmmakers, there’s clearly a living to be made in this field. And someone was paying for that open bar and the pre-ceremony hijinks. (Actually, there’s a strong list of sponsors, headed up by HBO.) There’s not much, but there’s more of a pie to spread around.
Cinema Eye is a funny and loose event, but it works. OK, sometimes it doesn’t work, like last year’s ridiculously long ceremony, but lessons were learned, and last night’s event lasted just over an hour. I think it works because the event itself is organically emerging, organized by people who are an integral part of it, at the same time that the form is. As docs burgeon, so is Cinema Eye. That’s a shout out to founder AJ Schnack, I should note, who passed the mic to host Sam Green, a filmmaker, who was fun and funny and not annoying, as a good host should be.
While filmmakers walked away with awards, my takeaway was the enthusiasm surrounding upcoming projects (can’t wait for Jason Kohn’s Diamond, Silver and Gold). In fact, I’m moved to write an upcoming post on the documentaries I’m most looking forward to in 2015. Look for it!
The full list of awards from the 2015 Cinema Eye Honors:
Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking
Directed by Laura Poitras
Produced by Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
Outstanding Achievement in Direction
Outstanding Achievement in Editing
Outstanding Achievement in Production
Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography (tie)
20,000 Days on Earth
Franklin Dow and Orlando von Einsiedel
Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Films Made for Television
The Price of Gold
Directed by Nanette Burstein
Produced by Libby Geist
For ESPN/30 for 30: John Dahl, Connor Schell, Bill Simmons
Audience Choice Prize
Keep On Keepin’ On
Directed by Alan Hicks
Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film
Finding Vivian Maier
Directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Score
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
20,000 Days on Earth
Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation (tie)
Heather Brantman & Tim Fisher
Directed by Johanna Hamilton
Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking
The Lion’s Mouth Opens
Directed by Lucy Walker
Directed by Richard Linklater
Paris is Burning
Directed by Jennie Livingston