July 17, 2009

The Cinema Eye Awards: It's All About the Craft

It was a hard day. I woke early and began four hours of chasing a toddler around while trying to deal with some rendering issues over the phone. Nap time, and I hand off the little one to the wife to put her down. I throw my camera into the car to go film an interview for a friend. Rushed back to Brooklyn to pick up my other daughter from ballet and the stress and fatigue have me aching all over. Did I really want to drag my ass into the city to see a documentary awards show....in late March? With the IDA Awards, the Oscars and 500 festivals in the US, do we need another reason to have an awards event?

Maybe. The Cinema Eye Awards were set up, as filmmaker AJ Schnack, one of the principal organizers, explained in his opening remarks, to honor the craft of filmmaking--and as an angry response to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Short List, which he felt didn't. As the room was filled with documentary filmmakers, that honoring felt a tad self-congratulatory. However, much of the self-congratulation was mixed with enough self-deprecation, and frustration, to take a good deal of the edge off. Jason Kohn, whose film Manda Bala won the award for Outstanding Achievement, summed it up this way: "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." It should be noted that Kohn said this with a wide smile and not in reference to his own film, but to those brilliant docs that don't get the attention they deserve.

In the end it didn't really feel as if the awards meant as much as the nominations--or simply bringing all of the filmmakers together to recognize how many good/great documentary films are being made. As Schnack elaborated, he was driven by the spirit of Werner Herzog, who strives to make films that illuminate an ecstatic truth, rather than an accountant's truth.

Schnack's co-presenter and co-conspirator, Thom Powers, who runs the Stranger than Fiction Film Series in New York and programs the documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival, probably knew every person in the room personally, so his presentation was particularly familial. While the delivery was relaxed and casual, the evening was surprisingly well run; short speeches, nice tech and a professional sheen that made it difficult to believe that this was an inaugural year.

In addition to doling out awards, the show also took time to honor both Tony Silver and St.Clair Bourne, both of whom had passed away in recent months. For Silver, the awards show organizers screened the opening sequence of his breakthrough film Style Wars (available via plexifilm). It was a fitting tribute. Filmmaker Nonso Christian Ugbode, who had worked briefly with Bourne, put together a short clip reel of some of his work, interspersed with a speech he had given. It, too, was a strong reminder of the transformative power of film.

The creators of the event didn't go crazy in terms of number of awards; producers, cinematographers, editors, graphic techs and directors were all honored. The limited awards were a good way to spread the love without overdoing it. The organizers also left room for an expanded event in the future. I imagine that music will be in the mix for next year as it played a prominent role in the ceremony.

In the middle of the evening, Powers pulled out some chairs and pulled up filmmakers Alex Gibney, Esther Robinson, Jason Kohn, and Pernille Rose Gronkjaer to discuss the state of independent film. If there was any controversy in the evening, it was introduced here as Powers pointed out that Robinson had balked at the fact that all of the nominees for the top award were male. While Gibney expressed excitement at the prospects for documentary film, Robinson took a more dour view, pointing out that cable channels pay much less than it costs to make a film. She further noted that the films being feted for the craft at this event weren't the big money-makers.

In the end, the Cinema Eye Awards program wasn't about adding laurels to posters, or bringing in dollars, or even feeling self-important. They really were about reframing the way that the documentary community considers craft. To that end, they were a necessary reminder to many in the audience about why they were making films in the first place.

For the complete list of winners, click here:
http://www.cinemaeyeawards.com/awards/winners.html

 

Michael Galinsky is a photographer and filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY.

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