Critics' Choice Doc Awards: Filmmakers Talk "Broader Social Imperative" of Nonfiction Work in "Golden Age"

Courtesy of Stuart Ramson/Invision for Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards/AP Images
'Apollo 11' composer Matt Morton and director Todd Douglas Miller

'Apollo 11' won five prizes including documentary of the year as nature- and women-focused stories were also celebrated at the Brooklyn event where Frederick Wiseman was honored with the D.A. Pennebaker Award and Michael Moore presented Michael Apted with the Landmark Award.

Nature, science, women and the production company Neon were among the biggest winners at the fourth annual Critics' Choice Documentary Awards held Sunday night in Brooklyn.

Hosted by Jonathan Scott, the Property Brothers star and director of an upcoming documentary on solar power, the ceremony celebrated the work of 63 nominees.

Throughout the event, winners and presenters nodded to the ways the medium has technologically, financially and creatively advanced and the new era that has been ushered in.

"Documentaries right now are going through a golden age," Asif Kapadia, director of the HBO documentary Diego Maradona, told The Hollywood Reporter. "There's always been a lot of women making films, people of color making films, and there are more international films. But there's more money right now, too. There's a real range of art and work being made, and the standards are really high."

Sixteen films and select members of their creative teams were awarded across 15 categories, including three new awards for best narrator, best science/nature documentary and best archival documentary. The Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar co-directed feature American Factory and Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old delivered the event's only tie in the best director category.

Women-centric stories also had a significant presence throughout the night. Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Maiden, Honeyland, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice and the menstruation-focused Oscar-winning short Period. End of Sentence ended the night as winners. These films were also honored within the most compelling living subject of a documentary category alongside The Cave, Ask Dr. Ruth, The Kingmaker and Knock Down the House.

"This show is like 25 percent bigger than it was last year. So it definitely is an explosion," Critics' Choice Association CEO Joey Berlin told THR. "You have greats like Fred Wiseman and Michael Apted doing their thing, but then you have a lot of people who are dipping their toes into it. If you look at the nominees just for first documentary feature, you see it's incredibly rich."

Honeyland, a film about one woman's use of ancient beekeeping techniques in the mountains of Macedonia, was the recipient of the best first documentary feature. It was the first of many victories for Neon, which also saw The Biggest Little Farm garner seven nominations and a win for best cinematography. Speaking to THR, Biggest Little Farm director John Chester said the film has not only offered viewers language and knowledge to talk about nature and ecology, but also "gets to a deeper truth" and addresses misinformation in a non-polarizing way.

"I waited eight years to finish writing the narrative of this film so that I was sure that I was understanding all the issues that typically polarize this subject," Chester said. "I took that very seriously because there is so much misinformation."

Like The Biggest Little Farm, many of this year's films were cinematic expansions of pressing issues tackled by journalists around the world. Similarly aiming to combat misinformation and bright the truth to light, nominees like Leaving Neverland's Dan Reed went through extensive character vetting while One Child Nation directors Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang used their own journalistic backgrounds to tackle 10 books' worth of research before having their information checked by outside experts.

"As Chinese citizens who live in America, the goal of making this film is really to document our history and we want the history to be even in 50 years or 100 years [something] people can look at it and then find truthful," One Child Nation co-director Wang told THR.

There are differences between feats of journalism and cinema, though, and for many of the attending creatives, the main distinction is how much time they have to tackle issues. "I think it's a crucial role that documentaries are playing in uncovering stories that are going to become more and more complex," The Edge of Democracy director Petra Costa told THR on the carpet. "You need the time to be able to delve into these stories to tell how that happened and documentary has that."

To a certain degree, Apollo 11 producer, director and writer Todd Douglas Miller had to re-create the nine days of time that resulted in the first 1969 moonwalk to get to the truth of his story. While the team had access to mission transcripts — created according to Miller through a group of volunteers rifling through historical audio and video over 50 years — there were still plenty of holes to be filled about what happened.

As the director behind the film that earned a total of five honors, including documentary of the year, Miller stressed the necessity for protecting "archives all over the globe that need to be digitized" and supporting the people who help preserve "the history of who we are."

"Everybody gets to shoot on digital nowadays, but you know, we invented a film scanner to be able to get these images on the big screen," Miller told the crowd while accepting documentary of the year. "And it was only because of the work of government employees that couldn't be here — and usually don't travel with us — both at NASA and the National Archives. They're just amazing individuals, and this award is a tribute to them."

Frederick Wiseman, whose cinematic work is famous for examining institutions like the New York Public Library and mental health hospitals, was the recipient of the D.A. Pennebaker Award. A noted inspiration for several of the night's winners, Wiseman thanked the room for "honoring and respecting documentaries as cinema." Formerly known as the Critics' Choice Lifetime Achievement Award, the award was renamed just this year following the death of director and influential documentarian Pennebaker.

"It's felt wonderful to have this kind of love from everybody, including people like Martin Scorsese and Michael Apted and so many others who were influenced by [him]," Chris Hegedus, Pennebaker's partner of 43 years and fellow documentarian, told THR on the carpet.

Apted, who was honored late last week by DOC NYC, was this year's Landmark Award recipient. As the director of the groundbreaking Up series, an ongoing chronicle of the lives of 14 British children every seven years since 1964, Apted was introduced by Oscar and Emmy-winning documentary director Michael Moore. The Coal Miner's Daughter director noted that the evolution of documentaries has helped make his work centering on issues like class inequity more common.

"Documentaries are a bit broader than they used to be rather than just something for the upper class," Apted said. "They have much more kind of insight — a broader social imperative. They don't just capture photographs of the World Cup or the Royal family. They get into regular people's lives."

Moore championed Apted as "a special human being" and "a filmmaker that has not been afraid to go up against the lie." While introducing the award recipient, Moore also arguably offered the night's most rousing thoughts on the narrative power of documentary and those in the room.

"When the history of cinema is written about the era that we're now in, what will it read like?" Moore asked the audience. "Our time is up, and our country — I'm speaking to the Americans in our country, but I guess the world — needs us the artists, the documentary filmmakers, to make these movies and make them now and get them out. I can't think of a more important thing for any of us who have this skill or talent to do in these next 12 months."