Yance Ford, POV’s series producer, attended the inaugural Cinema Eye Awards on March 18th. She writes in with some of her thoughts on what she liked and didn’t like about the awards. For a complete list of winners, visit the website of the Cinema Eye Honors.
Gathered in decidedly more casual attire than the Academy Awards, the docuratti (the non-profit version of the gliterratti) celebrated the inaugural Cinema Eye Honors on Tuesday night at the IFC Center in NYC. Launched by filmmaker AJ Schnack and documentary programmer Thom Powers this past year, and sponsored by distributor Indie Pix, the Cinema Eye Honors were born out of frustration over many industry awards (like the Oscars) giving short shrift to documentary films that pushed the craft envelope.
Thom Powers strode to the podium to the Jackson Five to open the evening’s festivities. He was followed shortly by AJ Schnack singing a brief song about Manda Bala, one of the nominated films, to the tune of Oklahoma by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Powers and Schnack, co-chairs of the Cinema Eye Honors, were ebullient as they welcomed many of documentary films’ greatest names to the virgin outing of Cinema Eye. Working in partnership with the folks at Indie Pix and producer Pamela Cohn, Schnack and Powers pulled off a minor miracle (they planned the event in just a few months), and our congratulations go out to them.
The ceremony was energetic and punctuated by tributes to St. Claire Bourne and Tony Silver, documentary pioneers who died unexpectedly in recent months. The pre-ceremony gathering was jovial (and smartly lacked alcohol) as documentary folk from far and wide turned out in an enormous show of support for the new awards. The knowledge and experience in the IFC theater last night was incredible. Presenters included Sam Pollard, Barbara Koppel, Ross Kauffman, Molly Thompson, Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky, Marshall Curry, Alex Gibney and Alan Berliner; the groundbreaking documentaries represented by those names are astounding, never mind the rest of the audience.
For its first time out, Cinema Eye has done a tremendous service to the documentary community in the same do-it-yourself spirit that gets films made. I overheard the phrase “well, next year” often, and I’m sure that in the coming months, AJ, Thom and Indie Pix (with lots of input, no doubt) will improve upon their model for the 2009 Cinema Eye Awards. My personal suggestion would include a discussion about how films with a limited festival life that go straight to TV might be included in the awards. I’d also like to see the list of craft categories expanded to include composition, writing and sound. I know that these questions and others are on the minds of everyone at Cinema Eye, and I look forward to hearing and contributing to the coming conversations.
I know Thom Powers to be a thoughtful, passionate programmer and a great filmmaker in his own right. But his opening remarks included a remark that I found troubling. He said that “distributors don’t get it, critics don’t get it and the general public doesn’t get it. We wanted to fill [this auditorium] with people who get it.” I’ll be the first to agree that independent documentary does not get the recognition it deserves, but I don’t think that the problem is the fact that the general public doesn’t “get it.” The problem is that the general public doesn’t get to see it. And as long as the documentary community prioritizes theatrical release and festival runs over broadcast, the public will continue to miss a large and dynamic body of work. I say this not just because POV is a broadcast outlet. I say this because when I looked around the IFC last night and saw the amazing collection of people in that theater, I wanted to ask everyone, what comes next? What do you do after tonight? How to you capture this energy and turn it into something sustainable?
With the coming broadcast digital conversion, the increasing options for “day and date” release, the absurdly high cost of going to the movies, and the fact that exhibitors by and large are in it for the money, does anyone honestly think that there will be a sea change in the way documentaries are made available theatrically? Maybe Michael Moore will work a miracle and get exhibitors on board for his Doc Night idea. But maybe audiences won’t turn out for that either.
Meanwhile, television series like POV and Independent Lens, and television networks like the Sundance Channel, IFC and HBO, can bring documentaries to the viewer on her own television set. The lowest rated POV film in any one season will reach more than seven hundred thousand viewers. These are seven hundred thousand people who likely do not have an art house theater in their community, but who might get their movies from Netflix. These are viewers who welcome content that does not insult their intelligence, or demean others for amusement. They are viewers who “get it.”
Am I saying that filmmakers shouldn’t go for theatrical runs? No. But festivals are for our colleagues and the relatively small number of civilians who are privileged or savvy enough to patronize them. I think we need to imagine a time when a majority of filmmakers complete the festival circuit or a short theatrical run then focus on reaching the people where they are: at home. The Cinema Eye Awards are a great start to celebrating the art and craft of documentaries within the documentary community, but there’s still a long ways to go for some of these wonderful films to reach a bigger audience.