By S.T. VanAirsdale
The inaugural Cinema Eye Honors took place Tuesday night at IFC Center, where most of the New York documentary community gathered to bestow awards for 2007's best and, in some cases, least celebrated docs. Sponsored by Indiepix and co-hosted by awards chair (and doc programmer) Thom Powers and founder (and filmmaker) A.J. Schnack, the evening was about as well-rehearsed, slick and classy as any awards show you could organize in three months -- especially one conceived ostensibly as a reaction to the insular Oscar class that overlooked more challenging Cinema Eyes nominees (and eventual winners) like Manda Bala, Billy the Kid and The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun. (Jump to the end for a full list of winners.)
"Sometimes the public gets what we're doing, sometimes they don't," Powers said in his introduction. "At the end of last year, as I reflected on how much great documentary filmmaking I'd seen in 2007, I had that feeling again that the general public had missed a lot. Many other documentary filmmakers I talked to felt the same way, ad it was from those conversations that the Cinema Eye Honors were born. We felt that if the general public doesn't get it still, then let's fill a room full of people who do get it."
Well, kind of. Again, it was a three-month turn-around, with eligibility criteria yielding both an underrepresentation of undistributed docs, festival sleepers and short films (for which, shockingly, there was no category) and a profile-bumping if incongruous assortment of Oscar-sanctioned titles including No End in Sight and the eventual Academy Award winner Taxi to the Dark Side. The latter film's director, Alex Gibney, even claimed the Cinema Eyes' directing prize over the likes of Manda Bala's Jason Kohn and Zoo's Robinson Devor, who themselves had attracted awards notice previously.
It was a showing that directly contradicted the irony of Schnack's own introduction Tuesday night. "The press wants totally to cover our films and not the narratives," he said, recalling a facetious correspondence with a depressed doc-maker friend. "Film critics write these really in-depth pieces about the creative skills used to make our films, as opposed to what they do for narrative, which is just summarize the action that takes place in the film. You're living the fat life!"
Certainly we journalists could do better, but if recognition is the thing, the Cinema Eyes are also a work-in-progress. For every revelatory moment -- Nonso Christian Ugbode's touching tribute to his late mentor St. Clair Bourne ("He was one of those rare people who actually cared to understand where everyone was coming from and what everyone understood," he said, introducing his Bourne montage. "I think that's what made his work pretty unique, so putting this together wasn't hard at all."), or A Walk Into the Sea director Esther Robinson's asides during a 20-minute director's roundtable ("We're in this great moment for re-seeing, and there's so much in this world that we need to re-see. We need someone to shepherd us to this place that frames exactly the thing that makes us understand our moment we live in.") -- I never escaped the sense that the evening was organized by friends for friends. We had all seen Manda Bala, and most of us liked it just fine without affirming its power through multiple awards for cinematography, editing and Best Film. Or at least we liked it just fine without Barbara Kopple and Schnack's impromptu musical duet announcing its big win.
Rooftop Films' programmer Mark Elijah Rosenberg was also in attendance, and he has a terrific analysis of this dynamic today over at his blog. Really, though, you can't hold too much against the voters; recalling his Reeler interview (and subsequent Grand Jury Prize acceptance speech) from the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, I and even the most militant awards-phobe would give Kohn a trophy every year just to hear him go off.
"At no point did it ever make sense, at least not while we were working on it," he said, accepting the final prize of the night with his producers Joey Frank and Jared Goldman. "I was doing it because I was really pissed off. I know you have to be really diplomatic about this stuff, and say how wonderful the community is, and how wonderful everything is, and that's why this awards ceremony is here. But the [reality] is you made this because you're pissed! You were upset! I remember when I saw Street Fight in a Sao Paulo documentary film festival. It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon -- empty fucking audience. And I loved this movie so much I ended up yelling at one of the programmers because the movies that were showing at the prime times were horrible. ...
"Street Fight was so fucking good and so well-done, and it was so important that everybody at this film festival saw it," Kohn continued. "But nobody saw it. I was furious. I was so goddamned mad. And I think you understand what I'm talking about: When these movies don't get seen, you feel like you're fucking losing. You feel like somebody else is winning, and that person is no good. So this movie was made out of anger. It was made out of a lot of anger. And while unfortunately I can only say this, the people who worked on it really understand it, and thank [them] for also working out of anger. I'd like to thank the people voted for voting out of anger. I'd like to thank all of the wonderful things that anger produced."
The Cinema Eyes won't survive out of anger, of course, but they may well survive out of their broader constituency's sense of adventure, experimentation and sacrifice. I wouldn't change much about the presentation, terrifically produced by Pamela Cohn (though the roundtable in the middle could be livelier; if only everyone were as charged up as Robinson and Kohn), and IFC's main auditorium was a surprisingly cozy environment for the format. But the spectrum of documentaries off their radar -- from the trenchant micro-doc Musician to the appallingly overlooked My Kid Could Paint That -- defy the instant legitimacy the awards sought to confer. Rather, the Cinema Eyes bowed, for one night anyway, firmly at the center of the establishment orbit. Not the worst place to start, by any means, but certainly no place they'll want to -- or should -- stay.
CINEMA EYE HONORS -- 2007
Oustanding Achievement in Nonfiction Filmmaking
Manda Bala (Send A Bullet)
Director - Jason Kohn, Producers - Joey Frank, Jared Goldman and Jason Kohn
Outstanding Achievement in Direction
Alex Gibney, Taxi to the Dark Side
Outstanding Achievement in Production
Seth Kanegis, Tomas Radoor and Mikael Rieks, Ghosts of Cite Soleil
Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography
Heloisa Passos, Manda Bala (Send A Bullet)
Outstanding Achievement in Editing
Doug Abel, Jenny Golden and Andy Grieve, Manda Bala (Send A Bullet)
Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design and Animation
Curious Pictures, Chicago 10
Outstanding International Feature
The Monastery: Mr. Vig and The Nun
Director - Pernille Rose Gronkjaer, Producer - Sigrid Dyekjaer
Outstanding Achievement in Debut Feature
Billy the Kid
Director - Jennifer Venditti
Audience Choice Prize
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Director - Seth Gordon
Posted at March 19, 2008 2:06 PM
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