The idea that there should be a new honor for nonfiction that recognizes the breadth of the genre and includes the crafts of cinematography and editing and producing, has been simmering in the mind of AJ Schnack for more than a year. While he was serving on the documentary jury at the Denver Film Festival, the Oscar shortlist was announced. For those who had spent the previous year on the road watching nonfiction films at festivals from Toronto to Park City to Oxford to Columbia, MO to Durham, NC to New York (and on and on), the list was staggering. One might expect that one or two of your favorites might not be selected. That always happens. But many felt that the Academy’s choices failed to fully represent the year they had experienced. With a sense of immediacy, AJ began to talk again about the idea of a new honor. After writing two pieces about the Oscar shortlist on his popular blog on nonfiction, “All These Wonderful Things,” there was an outpouring of support from the community.
Feeling that the moment must be seized, AJ reached out to Danielle DiGiacomo, Documentary Film Coordinator of New York-based distributor Indiepix, who quickly came on board to help shepherd this effort. With the unflinching support of Indiepix President Bob Alexander, the company became the presenting sponsor of the new honors. Meanwhile, John Vanco of New York’s IFC CENTER, an independent cinema house that has been a true champion for documentaries this year, offered his venue, and Thom Powers, the Documentary Programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and the programmer/host of NYC’s Stranger Than Fiction documentary series, signed on as co-chair.
In the words of IndiePix’s Bob Alexander, “The exceptional talent and craftsmanship within the film industry has been under-acknowledged. Documentary filmmaking is so intricate, yet the men and women behind the scenes rarely receive acknowledgement for the outstanding work they produce. We really want to show our support to nonfiction filmmakers and focus on explicitly honoring the craft involved.”

The Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking were founded in late 2007 to recognize and honor exemplary craft and innovation in nonfiction film.  Cinema Eye’s mission is to advocate for, recognize and promote the highest commitment to rigor and artistry in the nonfiction field.  Since 2011, the Cinema Eye Honors Awards Ceremony have been held in early January at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.  The Awards Ceremony marks the conclusion of Cinema Eye Honors Week, several days of film screenings and events honoring the year’s nominees and the best of nonfiction cinema.  Through Cinema Eye Week and its activities throughout the year, Cinema Eye seeks to build and nurture the nonfiction film community.


At its inception, Cinema Eye was the first US 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.  The Cinema Eye Honors recognize feature and short-length films with an emphasis on nonfiction films made for public distribution, whether primarily theatrical, festival or broadcast.  Cinema Eye seeks to encourage audiences to engage with nonfiction work that crosses all genres, whether observational, journalistic, activist, essayistic, light-hearted or provocative as well as those exciting works that blur the lines between nonfiction and fiction.  Since its founding, Cinema Eye has sought to change the conversation that film critics, festivals and awards bodies were having about documentary film, shifting the emphasis from importance of topic to artistic craft.

The inaugural Cinema Eye Honors were held at New York City’s IFC Center on March 17, 2008.  Jason Kohn’s MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET) received three awards that evening, including Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking.  Alex Gibney followed up his Oscar win for TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE with the Cinema Eye for Outstanding Achievement in Direction.  Gibney also served as a presenter at the event, along with filmmakers Barbara Kopple, Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, Sam Pollard, Alan Berliner and Ross Kauffman.

The second edition of Cinema Eye was held at New York City’s TimesCenter on 41st Street on March 29, 2009.  Ari Folman’s WALTZ WITH BASHIR received four honors, including Oustanding Achievement in Direction, and James Marsh’s MAN ON WIRE took three, including Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking.  Presenters at the event included Al Maysles, DA Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus, Morgan Spurlock and musician/artist Laurie Anderson.

After two years of establishing the Awards Ceremony, Cinema Eye began an evolution in its third year that dramatically transformed the organization and created the bones of the Cinema Eye Honors that exists today.  The Awards Ceremony moved from March to January and to the newly-remodeled Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY; awards were added for Nonfiction Short, a Spotlight Award for films that have yet to receive proper attention, the Heterodox Award for narrative films and the Legacy Award for the films that inspired today’s filmmakers.  With the help of our longtime sponsors at the Camden International Film Festival (and others), Cinema Eye became a multi-day event celebrating the nonfiction community as well the year’s creative and artistic achievements.

The third edition of Cinema Eye was held on January 15, 2010.  Louie Psihoyos’ THE COVE received the top award for Outstanding Feature and Agnes Varda was presented with the Outstanding Directing Award for THE BEACHES OF AGNES.  The Spotlight Award was presented for the first time (it went to Jessica Oreck’s BEETLE QUEEN CONQUERS TOKYO) and Cinema Eye presented its first Legacy Award to Ross McElwee for SHERMAN’S MARCH.  McElwee also served as a presenter at the event, along with filmmakers Peter Davis, Barbara Kopple, Albert Maysles, Bill Plympton and Ellen Kuras.

The Fourth Annual Cinema Eye Honors were presented on January 18, 2011. Banksy’s EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP was named Outstanding Feature and Laura Poitras received the Directing prize for THE OATH.  Lixin Fan’s LAST TRAIN HOME won three awards, including Cinematography and Production.  Legendary filmmakers Al Maysles and Muffie Meyer accepted the Legacy Award on behalf of GREY GARDENS.  Cinema Eye presented its first Nonfiction Short Film award (it went to THE POODLE TRAINER by Vance Malone) and first Heterodox Award, recognizing fiction films which imaginatively incorporate nonfiction strategies, content and/or modes of production.  That award went to Matt Porterfield’s PUTTY HILL.  Previous Cinema Eye winners James Marsh and Louie Psihoyos were among the presenters, along with Morgan Spurlock, They Might Be Giants’ John Flansburgh and actor/filmmaker Harry Shearer.

In 2012, the 5th edition of Cinema Eye took place on January 11, with Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’ THE INTERRUPTERS receiving the top two awards, Outstanding Nonfiction Feature and Outstanding Direction.  It was the first time in Cinema Eye history that one film had won both awards.  Frederick Wiseman accepted the Legacy Award on behalf of his debut film, TITICUT FOLLIES, and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky received the first ever Hell Yeah Prize for their PARADISE LOST series of films, which inspired a groundswell of public outrage over the case of the West Memphis Three.  Presenters at the 5th annual event included Michael Moore, Alex Gibney, Peter Davis, Andrea Meditch, Josh Fox, Nanette Burstein and Robert Krulwich.

The 6th Annual Cinema Eye Honors were held on January 9, 2013.  Emad Burnat & Guy Davidi’s 5 BROKEN CAMERAS took home the award for Outstanding Nonfiction Feature, while Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were named Outstanding Directors for DETROPIA. Michael Moore presented the Legacy Award to the 1993 political verite THE WAR ROOM, which was accepted by directors Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker and producers Wendy Ettinger and Frazer Pennebaker.  Presenters included Susan Froemke, Jennie Livingston, Jonathan Caouette, Darius Marder and Marshall Curry.

In 2014, Cinema Eye returned to the Museum of the Moving Image on January 8, following several days of film screenings in Toronto, Los Angeles and New York as well as a number of events that honored the work of that year’s nominees.  Joshua Oppenheimer and Signe Byrge Sørensen’s THE ACT OF KILLING was named Outstanding Feature Film and Outstanding Production.  Sarah Polley received the award for Outstanding Direction for STORIES WE TELL, while Zachary Heinzerling’s CUTIE AND THE BOXER picked up three awards, including Oustanding Debut. Cinema Eye introduced an award for Nonfiction Filmmaking for Television, which went to Lucy Walker’s THE CRASH REEL. The Legacy Award was presented to Barbara Kopple for HARLAN COUNTY, USA, while the 2nd Hell Yeah Prize was given to Josh Fox for his GASLAND films.  Presenters included Michael Moore, Jehane Noujaim and Chris Hegedus, Jennifer Fox, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Thelma Schooonmaker and Steve James.

For the 8th Annual event, Cinema Eye welcomed the first annual Honors Lunch, where the Legacy Award was presented to Jennie Livingston’s PARIS IS BURNING and the Heterodox Award was given to Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD.  At the Awards Ceremony the next evening, Laura Poitras’ CITIZENFOUR took home four awards, becoming the first film in Cinema Eye history to win for Feature, Direction, Editing and Production. The Cinematography Award was shared by Orlando von Einsiedel & Franklin Dow for VIRUNGA and Erik Wilson for Iain Forsythe & Jane Pollard’s 20,000 DAYS ON EARTH, which also won for Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ Original Score.  Filmmaker Sam Green hosted the awards and presenters included Steve James, Lucy Walker, Alan Berliner, Jonathan Oppenheim, Timothy “Speed” Levitch, Dawn Porter, Albert Maysles and DA Pennebaker.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do films become eligible for Cinema Eye?

A full list of our rules and procedures, including film eligibility, can be found on our Rules Page.

Who is responsible for confirming Cinema Eye eligibility?

While the Cinema Eye team makes every effort to track festival screenings and theatrical receipts, it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to make sure that Cinema Eye is aware of a film’s eligibility.  The deadline for Cinema Eye eligibility for feature films is usually at the end of August.  Deadlines for television entries will be in the spring.  If you have questions, you can email willlennonATcinemaeyehonorsDOTcom.

Who nominates films for Cinema Eye?

Representatives from top film festivals showcasing nonfiction work are invited to participate by nominating five films in each category from the list of eligible films.  For the 2014 Honors, the feature film nominations committee included the following members: Nominations Chair Charlotte Cook (Hot Docs), Claire Aguilar (Sheffield), David Courier (Sundance), Hussain Currimbhoy (Sheffield), Cara Cusumano (Tribeca), Joanne Feinberg (Ashland), Tine Fischer (CPH:DOX), Elena Fortes (Ambulante), Ben Fowlie (Camden), Tom Hall (Montclair), Sarah Harris (Dallas), Lane Kneedler (AFI FEST), Jim Kolmar (SXSW), Amir Labaki (It’s All True), Grit Lemke (Dok Leipzig), Artur Liebhart (Planete Doc Review), David Nugent (Hamptons), Veton Nurkollari (Dokufest Kosovo), Andrea Passafiume (AFI DOCS), Janet Pierson (SXSW), Thom Powers (Toronto), Rachel Rosen (San Francisco), Charlotte Selb (RIDM), Genna Terranova (Tribeca), Sadie Tillery (Full Frame), Basil Tsiokos (DOC NYC) and David Wilson (True/False).

The nonfiction short film nominations committee includes: Nominations Chair Charlotte Cook (Hot Docs), Claire Aguilar (Sheffield), Chris Boeckman (True/False), Cara Cusumano (Tribeca), Ben Fowlie (Camden), Claudette Godfrey (SXSW), Doug Jones (Images Cinema), Ted Mott (Full Frame), Veton Nurkollari (Dokufest Kosovo), Dan Nuxoll (Rooftop), Andrea Passafiume (AFI DOCS), Mike Plante (Sundance), Rachel Rosen (San Francisco) and Kim Yutani (Sundance).

The Cinema Eye Television award consists of two rounds. The first round committee includes: Nominations Chair Charlotte Cook (Hot Docs), Joanne Feinberg (Ashland), Tom Hall (Montclair), Sarah Harris (Dallas), Doug Jones (Images Cinema), Lane Kneedler (AFI FEST), Jim Kolmar (SXSW) and Andrew Rodgers (RiverRun).  The second round committee is made up of film critics and writers, including Steve Dollar, Bilge Ebiri, Eric Hynes, Liz Shannon Miller, Nick Pinkerton, Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman.

Once there are nominees, who votes for the actual awards?

More than 650 people comprise Cinema Eye’s voting membership and typically approximately 200-300 of those members cast their votes in a given year.  Invitations to vote are sent to the following individuals:

1. The directors of each submitted feature film that particular year.

2. All current and previous Cinema Eye nominees, winners, presenters, jury members, committee and board members.

3. Top distributors, commissioners, grantors, curators, programmers, writers, critics, sales agents and publicists who specialize in the nonfiction field.

We encourage voters to view all of the nominated films in a given category before voting for a winner in a particular category.  To help voters view films, we have partnered with the Hot Docs film festival to allow voters to watch films via their secure online viewing platform.

A few Cinema Eye categories are decided by juries.  In 2014, these included the awards the Spotlight Award, the Heterodox Award and the award for Television films.

Is the Cinema Eye leadership team involved in nominating films for the Honors?

For the 2016 awards, only Charlotte Cook, Chair of the Cinema Eye Nominations Committee, will vote for nominations in her role as a festival programmer. All other core team members do not vote at any stage of the nominations or voting process.

If you still have questions, please email willlennonATcinemaeyehonorsDOTcom and we will do our best to answer them.

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