IDA Awards: 'The Square' Wins Top Prize, Gets Standing Ovation (Analysis)

The directors of "Cutie and the Boxer" and "The Armstrong Lie," which, like "The Square," are among the 15 docs on the Oscar short-list, also received honors.
"The Square"

The International Documentary Association presented the 29th IDA Awards at the DGA Theatre in Hollywood on Friday night, providing some of the best insight yet -- along with the best documentary feature Oscar short-list, which was announced on Dec. 3 -- into how the doc community feels about this year's top contenders. The IDA, after all, consists of over 20,000 members, a portion of which whittled down a list of 275 eligible films to nominees of five per category, at which point the entire membership voted online to determine the winners.

The IDA's top prize, best documentary feature, went to Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim's The Square, a visually stylish and emotionally powerful on-the-ground record of the political revolutions that have unfolded in Cairo's Tahrir Square over the last few years, as seen through the eyes of activists on all sides of the debate. Having previously won audience awards at the Sundance and Toronto film fests, it received a standing ovation from the audience after it was announced as the winner.

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The Square, which is being distributed by Noujaim Films, Netflix and Participant, prevailed over Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing (Drafthouse Films), Gabriela Cowperthwaite's Blackfish (Magnolia and CNN Films) and Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell (Roadside Attractions), which were also Oscar short-listed. The doc also prevailed over Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn (Zeitgeist Films), which received a field-leading four IDA noms -- and won for best film editing -- but was not among the Academy's finalists.

Accepting the prize, Noujaim, whose prior credits include (2001) and Control Room (2004), called The Square, "The most deeply personal film of my life," stating that the revolution that took place during the making of it was "both on the ground and for me on the inside." She acknowledged the film's editors, who had to recut the film several times to reflect new developments in Tahrir, and one of the film's executive producers, Geralyn Dreyfous, a champion of female doc filmmakers who had been honored earlier in the evening with the Amicus Award for career achievement, which has only been presented on three prior occasions. (Dreyfous also EP'd another of this year's short-listed docs, Lucy Walker's The Crash Reel).

Noujaim also noted her disappointment that The Square was blocked by censors from being screened in Cairo, where it was to have had its Egyptian premiere on Thursday night, but noted that the film's principal subject had told her to remain optimistic. Producer Karim Amer added, "This award should really go to the young brave Egyptians" and dedicated it "to all the squares around the world that have stood for freedom and democracy... and that will come in the future."

Earlier in the evening, two other pre-announced IDA awards were bestowed upon directors of other Oscar short-listed docs.

Zachary Heinzering, the young director of Cutie and the Boxer received the Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award, which highlights a filmmaker who has made a significant impact at the beginning of his or her career in documentary film and carried with it a prize of $50,000 in post-production services. Cutie, which documents the complicated relationship between two long-married Japanese artists who live in New York, was Heinzerling's first feature doc and was awarded the U.S. documentary directing award at Sundance, where it premiered. "It's exciting to be a part of the next generation of documentary filmmakers who are charged with continuing the greatness of this art form I love," Heinzerling said. He also cited filmmaking advice from the legendary doc filmmaker Albert Maysles that he says he has taken to heart: "Get close and stay close."

Veteran director Alex Gibney, meanwhile, was presented with the Career Achievement Award by Frank Marshall and Matt Tolmach, two of the producers of his latest film, The Armstrong Lie, which looks into the doping and lying of champion bicyclist Lance Armstrong. Tolmach described Gibney as "a simple man with a camera who's just trying to save the world" through his films about abuses of power, which include the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side (2007), as well as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005), Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010), Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (2010), Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012) and this year's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Gibney, who is only 60, half-jokingly called the recognition "a brush with mortality." He said that "to be a documentarian is to be a little bit nutty, but also to have a sense of wonder," and laughed that The Armstrong Lie, which he began shooting before Armstrong admitted to cheating, forcing him to change his film, "went from Breaking Away to Breaking Bad."

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Also of note: Laura Poitras, the documentary filmmaker whose credits include the Oscar-nominated My Country, My Country (2007), was presented with the Courage Under Fire Award, which has been given only three others times over the last 10 years. Following an introduction by government whistleblower William Binney, Poitras appeared on a big screen at the front of the room via online video from Berlin, prompting a large portion of the audience to give her a standing ovation but a noticeable chunk of others to remain seated and not applauding. Poitras became a particularly controversial figure over the past year thanks to her association with Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who made public hundreds of thousands of classified documents. Poitras jokingly included the NSA among her thank-yous, suggesting that they were certainly watching her speech, and said, "Receiving an award for courage is interesting because it's the people who I film who have courage." She also thanked Snowden, saying his courage "is extraordinary and breathtaking," and dedicated the award to whistleblowers the world over.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg