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Two Decades of Doc Appreciation: The Legacy of the IDA Awards

By Harrison Engle

From Michael Apted's '28-Up', among the first IDA Award winners.

The IDA Awards were created in 1984, as part of our organization's intense desire to improve the recognition of documentaries and the filmmakers who made them. This was an era before the existence of multitudinous awards ceremonies. IDA was just two years old and had only a few hundred members. Many doc makers, particularly those in Los Angeles, felt that documentaries had been treated for too long as stepchildren of the motion picture industry. For years there had been growing dissatisfaction with the selections given out by the few institutions that honored nonfiction films. As hands-on creators of documentaries, we felt that we could make more sensitive and forward-looking choices.         

As a Board member, I designed a Lucite and chrome "IDA" award prototype and took it to President Linda Buzzell and the Board, who put me in charge of an awards committee. After intense discussions, we drafted our rules and procedures. We would give five awards of equal ranking for Distinguished Documentary Achievement, for long or short films on any subject. Our emphasis would be on the artistic and creative use of cinema, rather than on "talking head" works of journalism or public affairs. Our first choices would be critical in setting a standard of excellence and, frankly, in proving to the East Coast documentary community that IDA had a truly national—and international—vision.

Capping the awards were individual honors. The great filmmaker Pare Lorentz, who had crafted lyrical and sweeping social documentaries during the Depression, was voted recipient of our first Career Achievement Award. Distinguished writer, archivist and producer Erik Barnouw was chosen to receive our unique honor for Preservation and Scholarship. With the generous support of Eastman Kodak Company, and the efforts of a cadre of filmmaker judges and volunteers, the IDA Awards were off and running.

In 1987, Board member Gabor Kalman persuaded producer David L. Wolper to underwrite our outreach into schools and universities with the important IDA/David L. Wolper Student Documentary Achievement Award. In 1994, Executive Director Betsy McLane recommended that we designate one of our five awards specifically for short films. McLane would also work with the Lorentz family to endow the IDA/Pare Lorentz Award, which has evolved since its first presentation in 1997 into one of our highest honors, going to the film that best reflects the democratic sensibility, activist spirit and lyrical vision of Pare Lorentz. 

Over the years, the awards have gained in stature and popularity. The IDA has consistently given recognition to provocative and cutting-edge documentaries. In 1997, under IDA president David Haugland, the Awards were expanded to include categories such as Limited Series, Continuing Series and the IDA/ABCNews VideoSource Award, to acknowledge the changing documentary landscape and technologies of film and video. 

In addition to expansion of the awards program in the film categories, IDA introduced new individual honors to reflect the scope of achievement and service in the documentary field. The Amicus Award, established in 1993 as an occasional honor for "friends of the documentary who have contributed significantly to our industry," was presented to John Hendricks, founder of Discovery Communications, and in 1997 to Steven Spielberg for his work with the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. The late Robert Guenette received the first Pioneer Award in 2001 for "distinguished lifetime service to the documentary community," while filmmaker/journalist Saira Shah earned the Courage Under Fire Award the same year for "exemplary pursuit of truth in the face of extraordinary danger." In 2003, Alex Rivera was the first recipient of the Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award, given annually to a "filmmaker who by virtue of his or her early work shows extraordinary promise in exploring the possibilities of the nonfiction form."

Today, the IDA Awards have truly made a difference. Two decades of extraordinary films, filmmakers and organizations have been honored with the recognition they deserve. Our awards are known for artistic achievement, substance and the quality of our judgment. Hundreds of talented filmmakers have taken time from their own work and careers to chair or serve on our many judging committees that make the awards possible. More than 300 productions from around the world are entered each year.

The IDA Awards have become one of the most prestigious honors and have helped to improve the world of documentarians everywhere. 


Past IDA President and current Communications Committee member Harrison Engle can be reached at