The tirelessly hardworking, self-effacing documentary community ascended upon Astoria, Queens last night for the 11th annual Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking. While numerous other award shows throughout the season select a "Best Documentary," the Cinema Eye Honors look to bring attention to all aspects of a doc's work, including its cinematography, production design, musical score, and editing. As year-end award ceremonies inflate the recurring cycle of honoring the sum of a film's parts, the CEH breaks it down and honors the time, obsessive commitment, and team effort it takes to perfect the craft.

QuestdocumentaryJonathan Olshefski's 'Quest,' courtesy of First Run Features.

As noted on its website, CEH was "the first U.S or international organization to present annual awards for documentary in the fields of cinematography, original score, and graphic design. It remains the only organization, aside from the guilds, to recognize outstanding direction and production." We're pretty sure it's also the only one to choose a documentarian currently in the field as its esteemed host.

In his opening remarks, host Steve James, of Hoop Dreams and Life Itself fame, kept it light. "Jonathan Olshefski made Quest, this beautiful, poetic, lovely, intimate film after 10 years of filming. [The film] is 90 minutes long. 10 years of filming and it's only 90 minutes? I know that if I were making that film, with that material, it'd be at least six hours long."

And on the incredibly urgent Last Men in Aleppo, James admitted, "if I had been given the opportunity to make that, the title of my film would have been First Man Out of Aleppo. Right now I'm pitching A&E's Molly Thompson First Man in Hawaii, but I don't think it's going anywhere."

Strong-island-netflix-21-e1503427568902_1Yance Ford's 'Strong Island,' courtesy of Netflix.

The big winner of the evening was Yance Ford's Strong Island, the intensely personal, incredibly tragic film about the director's slain brother. The film, now available to stream on Netflix, won three awards, including Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking, Outstanding Achievement in Direction, and Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film.

A Queens resident himself, Ford noted that "Truth to power is spoken by people who are brave enough to trust directors with their stories, with their truths, and with their vulnerabilities." As the entire team stood on stage alongside him, Ford made clear that "[the word] director is a plural, not a singular, with Strong Island."

"The most important thing is that we have a hell of a lot of work to do."

Ford encouraged Strong Island producer Joslyn Barnes to say a few words. Fighting back tears, Barnes highlighted what makes the Cinema Eye Honors different from other awards, noting the sheer futility involved in pitting one artist against another to determine the year's best work. With major obstacles put in place daily by malicious world leaders, why should we throw another event that has us compete for committee approval?

"We just have to remember," Barnes said softly, "that we've been set against each other in all of this awards fuckery. It's nice to have an awards ceremony that's not like that, to have a community that fights against that. To all of you nominated, shortlisted, not-nominated, overlooked, the unforgettable and the totally forgotten, the most important thing is that we have a hell of a lot of work to do."

Chasingcoral_0Jeff Orlowski's 'Chasing Coral,' courtesy of Netflix.

It's no secret that the film industry is going through major changes regarding issues of diversity inclusiveness and an excessive abuse of power, and DP Kirsten Johnson, herself a multi-winner for Camerapersonat last year's CEH, took to the stage before presenting an award to plead for change. Going one nominee-by-one nominee, category-by-category, Johnson gave astounding stats as to how few women and people of color were nominated on the evening. Noting that she had crunched the numbers in the car over to the show, Johnson was equally fed up and worried about the lack of nominees who represent the neglected and too often unrewarded.

"The conversation around being inclusive and looking at who's on your team are conversations that inform in such a subconscious way."

Accepting the award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography soon after, Chasing Coral's Jeff Orlowski noted that he was of mixed-race and that "coming from a mixed background [can make] you blend into different worlds and also stick out from different worlds as well. The conversation around being inclusive and looking at who's on your team are conversations that inform in such a subconscious way. I just want to try and draw attention to it and echo the comments [Johnson made]."

Jane_1Brett Morgen's 'Jane,' courtesy of National Geographic Films.

At one point in the evening, Cinema Eye Founding Director AJ Schnack took to the stage to encourage his audience to keep making good work, despite the bleak realities they often face and seek to document. They should disturb the infrastructure much more than they try to abide by it. "Cinema Eye recognizes the fact that the rules can be broken," Schnack declared, "that the rules should be broken, and that we should mess with the lines and the ideas and always try to fuck a bunch of shit up. Cheers to everybody who has done that this year." And so it was accomplished.

The winners of the 11th annual Cinema Eye Honors

Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking

Strong Island

Outstanding Achievement in Direction

Strong Island

Outstanding Achievement in Editing


Outstanding Achievement in Production

Last Men in Aleppo

Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography

Chasing Coral

Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Score


Outstanding Achievement in Graphic Design or Animation

Long Strange Trip

Audience Choice Prize


Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film

Strong Island

Outstanding Achievement in Broadcast Nonfiction Filmmaking

The Keepers

Spotlight Award

Lots of Kids, a Monkey and a Castle

Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Short Filmmaking

The Rabbit Hunt

To learn more about the Cinema Eye Honors and how you can get involved, please click here.