When the filmmakers behind the best in documentary films this year converged at the Paramount Theater in Culver City, Calif., on Saturday for the 31st annual IDA Documentary Awards, the proceedings had a distinct flavor of Netflix. The online streaming giant was the primary sponsor for the event, its films were nominated for three awards and Tig Notaro, the subject of the Netflix documentary “Tig,” was the event’s host. Finally, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s head of content acquisition, was honored with the Pioneer Award for his early efforts to make the website a major supporter of documentary films.
Sarandos talked about the website’s long relationship with documentary films: “Netflix was practically founded with documentary films in mind. In the late 1990s with the limitations of theaters and video stores, documentary features were nearly impossible to see if you lived outside of New York or L.A. … Doc lovers figured us out early and helped Netflix grow into big cities and small towns all around the country,” Sarandos said. “We became the biggest buyer of documentary films on DVD in the world and when internet speeds and costs made it possible to stream, Netflix again looked to the documentary to make it possible to revolutionize a new medium.”
Sarandos continued by talking about the platform that Netflix provides these films. “In our first three years we produced and acquired 17 original docs, films that are being watched as we speak in nearly every corner of the world,” he said. “This is the unique role of documentaries and documentarians. You have to entertain, sure. But you also have to inform and ignite and, for that, you need an audience.”
When introducing Sarandos, “W/ Bob and David’s” Bob Odenkirk recalled when he first met the Netflix executive. “He would talk endlessly and make up words like ‘streaming.’ He just made up these words and you would just nod your head as he’d talk. Who knew, right? But that’s what pioneers do.”
Gordon Quinn, the co-founder of Kartemquin Films, received the IDA’s career achievement award for his production company’s involvement in such films as “Hoop Dreams,” “Stevie” and “Life Itself.” “A couple years ago, I was asked to give the commencement address at the graduation for media makers at Columbia College in Chicago, and my message to them was to go out and join organizations like the IDA, join the unions and the guilds and the IFP and make our field what you want it to be,” he told the crowd. “Don’t ask how you can fit in, ask how we can make this field serve the needs of what it needs to be. Many people here talked about telling truth to power and that is at the core of what we do and that’s an ongoing struggle.”
“The Look of Silence,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his harrowing “The Act of Killing,” took top honors as best feature. Oppenheimer spoke about the impact that his film has had in Indonesia despite heavy opposition from the government. “The Indonesian genocide ended 50 years ago this year but in a terrible way it hasn’t ended because the perpetrators are still in power and survivors continue to live in fear,” Oppenheimer said. “Screenings of ‘The Look of Silence’ have been attacked by paramilitary thugs working for the military and the military has pressured to have ‘The Look of Silence’ banned from commercial cinema screenings in Indonesia, so it has only been released through the work of community groups, NGOs, film clubs, universities. That said, ‘The Look of Silence’ has helped catalyze a national conversation about what happened in 1965, replacing silence and noisy celebration of genocide.”
Notaro delivered her trademark deadpan delivery throughout the proceedings. One highlight was when she joked about her own documentary, “Tig,” not being nominated for any awards. “This is the first year when IDA expanded the field to six documentary features. Still, not enough room.”
Other presenters included Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, “Fargo’s” Colin Hanks, “Lethal Weapon’s” Danny Glover, “Sex and the City’s” Kristin Davis and Willie Garson, “Titanic’s” Frances Fisher and “Longmire’s” Lou Diamond Phillips.