IDA gala fetes ‘Brothels,’ ‘9/11’

Org hopes to boost recognition, promote creative excellence

IDA award winners
Feature: “Born Into Brothels,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”
Honorable mention, feature: “Control Room”
Short: “Mighty Times Volume 2: The Children’s March”
Honorable mention, short: “The Life of Kevin Carter”
Limited series: “The New Americans”
Continuing series: “American Masters”
Honorable mention: “CNN Presents”
Pare Lorentz award: “Oil on Ice”
IDA/ABC News VideoSource prize: “Imelda”
Emerging filmmaker award:Jonathan Caouette, Jacqueline Donnet

What a difference 20 years makes. The Intl. Documentary Assn.’s first award ceremony honored five films at a luncheon for 200. Tonight’s 20th annual gathering is a sold-out gala for 600 at the DGA Theater.

Award categories have more than doubled in the ensuing decades, and the nonprofit org comprises 2,500 members from 50 countries (half are from California). But its mandate to boost recognition of its international constituency and promote creative excellence remains.

Nominated by a committee of peers and voted on by a blue-ribbon jury, the work to be honored tonight ranges from celebrated features “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Born Into Brothels” to PBS’ 20-years-running “American Masters” series to shorts and student work. The IDA’s board of directors also bestows five honors, among them — career achievement and pioneer awards.

“The whole purpose of the several nominating and selection committees is to be as democratic as possible and find films that not everyone knows,” says Richard Popper, IDA president.

Even with stellar B.O. returns for this year’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Super Size Me,” much of the best documentary work is little seen. Many films are homemade labors of love with no corporate backing.

Honorees such as Alanis Obomsawin, recipient this year of the Pioneer Award, exemplify the tenacious commitment of filmmakers who often work years without compensation to bring their stories to light. Obomsawin has made more than 20 docs on social issues affecting Canada’s native peoples.

According to Sandra Ruch, the IDA’s exec director, the quality of films submitted for consideration has greatly improved from years past. Hybrid-format docs are also making an impact. “This mix of animation, re-enactments and special effects is a new departure for the genre,” attests Ruch, who points to Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation” and Jessica Yu’s “In the Realms of the Unreal” as ground-breaking docs.

The IDA’s top feature award has become a harbinger for Oscar’s equivalent kudo, according to ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman. The IDA winner gains immediate distinction within the industry.

Susan Lacy, exec producer of the continuing series winner, PBS’ “American Masters,” says she was thrilled to be honored. The series’ finely crafted bios, usually developed and produced inhouse, include Deborah Dickson’s “Education of Gore Vidal” and Anne Makepeace’s “Robert Capa: In Love and War.”

“We try to bring the audience into the world of the artist and the work, and the circumstances that contributed to both,” says Lacy.

Gotham-based filmmaker William Greaves is this year’s career achievement honoree. His cinematic portrait of a Nobel winner, “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey,” was a standout at Sundance in 2001, and led to a series.

Greaves praises the IDA for the support services, energy and enthusiasm it provides to the documentary community.

The org’s most visible effort is its traveling documentary show, the InFact showcase, which exhibited a group of 17 films in five cities this year. Along the way it satisfied theatrical play requirements for the Academy Awards (four of 12 doc features chosen as Oscar semifinalists this year qualified this way).

The org also runs a financial program. “Filmmakers always ask me, where can I get a distributor and how do I raise more money?” Ruch says. To help facilitate funding, the IDA uses its status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to channel donations from individuals and organizations to projects it sponsors. Filmmakers are freed from the expense and paperwork of establishing their project as a nonprofit. Donors receive a tax write-off, while the IDA receives a token administrative fee.

Notes IDA prexy Popper, “The IDA is set up to help independent filmmakers achieve their goals. There’s a need for an organization that reps the little guy.”

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