Cinema Eye Honors: All Eyes on Documentary Films

The annual event showcases 2014’s achievements in non-fiction filmmaking

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The first time you were subjected to a documentary probably happened in class and if you were really lucky it happened in health class; regardless of the decade your teacher somehow found a way to teach you about positive life choices through a 15mm lens shot three decades prior to when your Nike Air’s came out. My health teacher, Ms. Rabourn, assigned Adam as the “projector person” and after he loaded 15mm film onto a small projector: a little person came on the screen, riding his tractor and tending to his farm (all with a great amount of difficulty) as the narrator quoted from the book of Job, “there was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”

Included in Ms. Rabourn’s film compilation of ‘be happy you are not disabled’ was the British Documentary “Two of a Kind” which was shot in 1971 and followed a woman who was born with no hands: driving her car, typing, and sipping her tea with her feet.   Looking back I am not sure what the health related lesson was, perhaps it was a window into the lives of the less fortunate? Mainly I just remember being really creeped out.

Documentaries have come a long way since Adam was on projector duty with “The Thin Blue Line” leading to the reversal of Randall Dale Adams death sentence and the “Paradise Lost” trilogy publicizing the Robin Hood Hills murders, resulting in the release of three young men who were accused of the murders. Non-fiction filmmaking has become our window into the world beyond imagination; documenting the things we try to avoid and ignore.  The good ones dig below the surface and move past an agenda while the bad ones preach a specific doctrine, often ignoring the truth.

2014 was a particularly illuminating year for Doc’s with “The Internet’s Own Boy” and “Citizenfour” both shifting the way we think about technology and our place in it. These two films (and documentaries in general) have done well due to word of mouth and the festival circuit, but an award season nudge never hurt, particularly for films with no Netflix or mainstream presence. Beyond the two categories (best documentary short subject and best documentary feature) placed between best supporting actress and the death montage, the Academy Awards don’t pay much mind to the non-fiction genre.  Cinema Eye Honors is in the process of changing that.

Founded in 2007, Cinema Eye Honors recognizes achievements in direction, cinematography, production, graphic design and editing in documentary films.  With Netflix and other on-demand services bringing non-fiction to the masses at an astonishing rate, it’s only fair that Doc’s get their own awkward “I thought she was dead” celebrity studded event.  With this years contenders it’s easy to understand why the genre has taken the cinema landscape to new depths.

“Citizenfour,” which received the most nominations, including best director and best feature, signifies the genre’s growing presence and importance.  With the director Laura Poitras having access that many journalists pine for—she got the gig due to discretion and a small crew—Poitras’ sensibility proves that sensationalism is bad for scoop and non-fiction filmmaking. “Citizenfour,” which uncovers whistleblower Edward Snowden’s spilling of government secrets, was shot under covert circumstances with only select crewmembers viewing the film prior to its debut in October at the New York Film Festival.

Filmed in less covert circumstances, and also nominated for best feature, includes Steve James “Life Itself,” chronicling the illness and life of famed film critic Roger Ebert.  Despite the star power surrounding the film (it’s fare to say Roger Ebert remains the most famous film critic in the world) “Life Itself” still needed an extra post-production push and James began a crowdsourcing fund at Indiegogo before it’s Sundance debut. The fund not only covered post-production costs, but also fueled a strong media campaign for the film.  The campaign spawned several screenings for patrons and the opportunity to stream the film before it was released to the general public.

Another strong contender for best feature includes, “The Overnighters,” and like Ariel Levy’s New Yorker piece on the Steubenville rape case, the film uncovers the crevices of its subject’s—in this case the unemployed and underemployed oil drillers—that several of us would otherwise shun. Moss initially came to the oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota for another project, but found himself drawn to the town and one of it’s Pastor’s Jay Reinke, who housed Moss and several men and women looking for work in the town.  As Moss recently told Andrea Chase at Public Radio Exchange (PRX): “I really wanted to tell a story in which life happened in front of us, the films that inspired me to make documentaries are the great cinema vérité films.  Moss went on to point out that the films he loves “find a way to tell the epic and the intimate.”

Moss perfected this style by working on the project alone, staying in Williston several days at a time while shooting the film over a year and a half.  In order to remain close to his subjects and his budget, Moss slept amongst the unemployed who resided at Pastor Reinke’s Church.  According to Indiewire Moss began shooting the film on a Sony F3 with the Red 17-50, and after eventually receiving a grant from Sundance, he was able to up his budget and shoot with a Fujinon 19-90.  Moss’s loner style allowed him an incredible amount of access to his subjects, particularly Pastor Reinke; where at one point during the film both director and subject were threatened at gunpoint.

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Jesse Moss Filming in North Dakota

As Moss recently told Film Independent, after a T.V. project he was working on in North Dakota was canceled, he got his camera out and simply starting filming.  No investor, no crew and no specific subject—a man with his camera in a ‘no man’s land’—the spontaneity that a non-fiction feature provides creates an endless amount of creativity. Although we can all certainly learn a lot from a woman with no arms, Moss, Poitras and James make for a more intoxicating experience.

After “The Overnighters” won the Special Jury Award for Intuitive Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival it was acquired by Drafthouse films and is currently out in limited release.  The Cinema Eye Honors will hand out awards onWednesday, January 7, 2015 in New York City at the Museum of the Moving Image.

@MeMontgom

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