Documentary filmmakers are a misunderstood lot. The Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Film, however, may eventually change that perception. This emerging awards event, held Sunday night at The Times Center in midtown Manhattan and sponsored by IndiePix (www.indiepixfilms.com
), was once again a joyous, heartfelt and purposeful affair. Creator and co-chair and co-host AJ Schnack (Kurt Cobain About a Son
) spoke in his opening remarks about the ceremony as vindicationâ€”for filmmakers spurned by the commercial marketplace, for executives recently let go from dissolved film studios and divisions, for artists trying to dispel the myth that a documentary must be made a certain way in order to be recognized.
Co-hosts Thom Powers (left) and AJ Schnack flank presenter Albert Maysles.
Schnack was preaching to the converted, and the choirâ€”led by presenters D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Albert Maysles and all the nominees in attendanceâ€”was fired up and hungry for a better definition of what they do. As the ceremony progressed through the preambles, the acceptance speeches, and notably a panel discussion wedged in the middle of the festivities, the word documentary
intermittently crept in. But a much broader understanding of nonfiction filmmaking soon emerged, one defined by an adherence to deeper emotional truths and the exuberant necessity of the nightâ€™s honorees to wear their variously fashioned art proudly on their sleeves.
The other not-so-startling revelation of the evening? The best examples of this often grueling, complex and lyrical art form are coming, with increasing frequency, from storytellers comfortable traversing both feature and documentary genres. Where else but at the Cinema Eye Honors can you find such stylistically different yet emotionally visceral works like Guy Maddinâ€™s My Winnipeg
, Ari Folmanâ€™s Waltz with Bashir
and James Marshâ€™s Man on Wire
bundled into one unified field of vision? Waltz with Bashir
and Man on Wire
both won big on Sunday night. Man on Wire
took the top prize, for outstanding achievement in nonfiction feature filmmaking, as well as in production and editing, and Marsh and his star Philippe Petit reprised a more relaxed version of their Oscar night pas de deux at the podium. Waltz with Bashir
won the most awards, for achievement in direction, graphic design and animation, music composition and for outstanding international feature. (See below for the full list of winners.)
Man on Wire director James Marsh and Philippe Petit accept the Cinema Eye Honors' top prize of the evening.
Depending on who took the stage, the cathedral moments turned raucous, and the warm, collegial atmosphere forged by these filmmakers while on the festival circuit quickly spread through the audience. Presenter Morgan Spurlock, whose film Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden
was nominated in the graphic design and animation category, riffed on his fantasy that the group might rise up in some collective, epic act of daring to cap off the night: â€œWe can put five people each on the backs of Pennebaker and Maysles, because they have the strength of ten filmmakers. Then weâ€™ll scale The Times building. And Lou Reedâ€™s here [with his partner, Laurie Anderson, a presenter of the newly added honor for music composition]. He could write a song about it.â€ (Spurlock told me later he was just happy his film was nominated in the same category as Bashir
. â€œI mean, come on,â€ he admitted. â€œIt was like being up against The Godfather
For relative newcomer David Polonsky, Waltz with Bashir
â€™s art director, the ceremonyâ€™s spirit of collaborative, multidisciplinary zeal was invigorating. He came to the podium five times Sunday night, first accepting his award for graphic design and animation and later representing his team for the four additional honors the film earned. Upon accepting the filmâ€™s final award for direction he joked that heâ€™d run out of things to say. â€œI am not Ari,â€ he said drolly. â€œI just did the drawings.â€ He had more to say, however, about the way art and documentary filmmaking have become so intertwined.
These illuminating moments canâ€™t paper over the genreâ€™s inherent challenges. Cinematography and debut feature nominee Ellen Kuras, best known for her DP work with director Michael Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind
), took 23 years to complete The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)
with her subject and co-director, Thavisouk Phrasavath. â€œWe didnâ€™t really have a choice,â€ she said during the panel, citing the political, cultural and financial hurdles the pair encountered along the way. â€œBut we also couldnâ€™t abandon this film.â€ Man on Wire
â€™s James Marsh agreed. â€œThe films I make,â€ whether narrative or documentary, â€œare the ones I have to make. Youâ€™re just always trying to tell a story as clearly as possible.â€
Filmmakers Margaret Brown and Ellen Kuras discuss their craft during the evening's on-stage panel discussion.
Yet it is within this culture of nonfiction filmmaking, despite its frustrations, that Marsh says he feels most comfortable. â€œThe world of fiction filmmaking is a much more hostile world,â€ he said. â€œPeople are much more unpleasant in it, generally. And the great discovery of Man on Wire
, for me, was the film playing at festivals and meeting a lot of people who are in this room and having passionate, respectful conversations with other filmmakers, as opposed to the kind of culture of envy and resentment that prevails in fiction filmmaking.â€
The nightâ€™s other highlights included a study in contrasts, from the fresh talent of the young Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang, who won both the debut honor and audience choice award for his film, Up the Yangtze
, to the bittersweet and often hilarious anecdotes from those whoâ€™ve spent much longer in the industry.
Director Yung Chang (center) accepts the honor for debut feature from presenter Morgan Spurlock.
The common thread? Whether driven by passion or simply a great story, these men and women have expressed the ineffable. Iâ€™m thinking of the way Ari Folman and his team slipped off Waltz with Bashir
â€™s hypnotic, Technicolor dream coat in the filmâ€™s final, devastating live-action climax. How Werner Herzogâ€™s vision and Peter Zeitlingerâ€™s well-trained eye nudged that lone penguin into the wider frame in Encounters at the End of the World
. The way James Marsh and his Man on Wire
crew captured Petitâ€™s suspended, breathless narrative, pulling it taut as the cable between the two towers. These films, now part of our collective dreams, are so much more than documents. They are truly works of art, and we are all the richer for them.
Winners of the 2009 Cinema Eye Honors
Outstanding Achievement, Debut Feature: Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang)
Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design and Animation: Waltz with Bashir (Yoni Goodman & David Polonsky)
Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition: Waltz with Bashir (Max Richter)
Outstanding Achievement in Editing: Man on Wire (Jinx Godfrey)
Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography: Encounters at the End of the World (Peter Zeitlinger)
Audience Choice Award: Up the Yangtze (Yung Chang)
Outstanding Achievement in Production: Man on Wire (Simon Chinn)
Outstanding Achievement, International Feature: Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
Outstanding Achievement in Direction: Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman)
Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Filmmaking: Man on Wire (Dir: James Marsh; Prod: Simon Chinn)