November 1, 1996

The Legacy of the IDA Awards

"It is my ambition to walk to the edge of the world and the end of time and fall into an absolute nothingness for ever and ever-no feelings, no dream is. But one always has to be back for tea—alas!—at least at this time of year."

-Angela Thirkell

Several members, who have just joined our organization, have expressed interest in the genesis of the IDA awards. Th is being an appropriate issue of the magazine, a short history of the awards is in order.

The IDA was founded in 1982 th rou gh th e efforts of a gifted, determined young woman, Linda Buzzell. However, the concept of the IDA awards did not come into being until three years later, in 1985. Why awards? Could it be that the Darwinian desire for natural selection started to work on the executives of the IDA) There seems to be some instinct that drives us to reward the best of genre, be it Nobel Prizes, Super Bowls, Humanitarian awards, Pulitzer prizes or Bowling League trophies... and we shouldn't overlook People magazine's best and worst dressed list of celebrities. Perhaps it's comforting to be able to confer and/or receive immortality, albeit briefly. In the case of the IDA, the need for an awards program was simple. In the world of television and motion pictures, the documentary has always been treated as a poor relative. It was important that the IDA, as part of its mandate, bring attention and recognition to the best documentary work produced every year. Accordingly, a committee chaired by Harrison Engle created the following awards:

Five Distinguished Documentary Awards to productions that have shown exceptional creative achievement. Why five awards? The committee did not want this to be a winner-take-all affair. Secondly, the documentary form i s so varied, ranging from clip shows, to scientific investigations, investigative reporting, cinema vérité, etc. With five choices, there was an opportunity to reward different types of documentary concepts. Among the award winners: Shoah, Eyes On The Prize, For All Mankind, Berkeley In the Sixties, Hearts of Darkness, Paris is Burning.

Career Achievement Award to an individual who has made a major contribution to the documentary form. Attention must be paid to those individuals who have advanced the cause of the documentary. Some award winners: Pare Lorentz, Frederick Wiseman, Bill Moyers, Fred W. Friendly, Walter Cronkite.

Preservation and Scholarship Award to an individual or organization in recognition of outstanding contribution to the archival preservation of the documentary or to documentary education. These people or organiza­tion need not be documentary makers themselves, but have helped to advance and preserve the form. Some award winners: Film Department of the Museum of Modern Art, Erik Barnouw, David Shepard.

In 1987, a new category was added: The David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Award which included a cash scholarship, and a film stock award from Eastman Kodak, for outstanding creative achievement in the documentary form. Every year, a videocassette with the five outstanding student documentaries is distributed to universities and colleges around the world.

Over the years the awards have gained in stature and popularity. The IDA has consistently given recognition to provocative and cutting-edge documentaries that were passed over by award committees of major institutions—films such as Hoop Dreams, Roger and Me and The Thin Blue Line. Each year the number of entries for our documentary and student achievement awards grows. In the thirteenth year of competition, there were more than 400 films or tapes submitted.

In the future there will be undoubtedly be changes in the make-up of the awards. (In 1995, the board of the IDA decided that one of the five documentary achievement awards should be given to a production under thirty five minutes in length.) The particular constraints and formats of the rapidly expanding number of television documentaries have to be taken into consideration. We have to begin to consider alternate media sources, e.g., documentaries made for videocassette distribution only, CD-ROMS, Internet productions, etc. Our guidelines will have to be revised as the IDA moves into the brave new world of multimedia communication.

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