The Oscars are having a moment. Faced with the looming Trump administration and their own bias issues (#oscarssowhite) they’re pushing hard to reach back to the thing that motivates every young artist (until the bills pile up, at least) – making art that matters. Or in the Academy’s case: supporting art that matters.
Nowhere is that more evident than it was in the Academy sponsored panel for the Documentaries, both Short and Feature Length. This wasn’t a year for a movie with a frivolous focus. The subject matter was heavy, and not far removed from the headlines of the day. Meaning – tons of Syria and racism.
But it’s still a panel to celebrate people who make movies, so there was an ebullient feeling in the plush, red Samuel Goldwyn Theater – after all, these lucky people were nominated for the biggest prize in show business! And because they were nominated for making something important, there was a little heft to the proceedings. These people weren’t just making art, they were making a difference, so everyone felt even more justified than normal to have a party for them.
The evening started with a Trump joke and approving laughter from the audience, and was then divided into two sections; Short Documentary Features in the first half and the Feature Length in the second half. For each of the sections, clips from each of the nominated films were showed, then a panelist would intro all the filmmakers and then ask each one a question about their film; sometimes about the logistics of making it, or the way they came upon the subject matter. In large part, the filmmakers gave the usual answers, because it’s a story that needs to be told, or I wanted to bring to light this important issue. Makes sense as these movies were all dealing with very important issues.
Kate Amend (Moderator), Ean Krauss (Extremis), Daphne Matiziaraki (4.1 Miles), Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen (Joe’s Violin), Stephen Ellis and Marcel Mettelsiefen (Watani: My Homeland), Orlando Von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara (The White Helmets).
One of the most revealing moments though, was when Rory Kennedy, a documentary maker herself and the moderator of the full-length panel, nervously asked the “I Am Not Your Negro” team how far we’d come in race issues. The question was about America, but it also seemed to be about the Academy itself, an affirmation that the nominations were much more diverse than last year. The answer? Well, the words of James Baldwin were written 60 years ago, but they could have been written this morning. So we still have a ways to go.
Of the Short Documentaries, 3 of the 5 were about Syria, and they all looked gut-wrenching. After all, sitting in our roomy seats in the middle of well-groomed Beverly Hills, you’d be a monster to not feel the weight of your privilege while watching Syrian refugees packed skin to skin on a rickety dingy, as we saw in the clip for “4.1 Miles”. That was followed by a clip of a baby being dug out of the rubble of a bombed apartment building in the clip from “The White Helmets”. “Watani: My Homeland” followed a family of refugees from Aleppo, and had a gloriously human moment showing the young children play in the surf. The two docs that didn’t cover the refugee crisis, “Extremis”, about life or death decisions made in a hospital, and “Joe’s Violin” about the violin given from a holocaust survivor to a New York City school girl, seemed good also, but it’s hard to know how they’ll do when the atmosphere clearly leans toward the political.
The Feature Length Documentaries leaned towards the subject matter of race, with “I Am Not Your Negro”, about the life and writing of James Baldwin, appearing to be the standout. It has the benefit of being able to use Baldwin’s words, which gave it a poetic, dreamy feeling, even while put into harsh context by being played over footage of Dr. Martin Luther King’s funeral. “O.J.: Made in America” has been talked about a lot this year, and it puts the O.J. trial into greater cultural context. “13th”, while being generally about how the prison industrial complex is the newest tool the system uses to keep black people down, also put into perspective in a sharp way the current political situation by playing footage of 1960’s civil rights protesters with audio of Donald Trump encouraging violence in his speeches. Yikes. Bring a tissue to that one.
From “I am Not Your Negro” : Rémi Grellety, Raoul Peck, and Hébert Peck.
Of the other two Full Length Documentaries, “Fire at Sea” was also about the tragedy of Syrian refugees, and then there was “Life, Animated”. This touching documentary was about how an autistic boy learned to communicate by using animated Disney movies. It looks moving, and beautifully put together, with a combination of real-life footage and animated segments. But in this particular day and age, it might not be its time. It felt like the “La La Land” of documentaries, a congratulatory letter from Hollywood to itself. Good, but possibly not the most important thing to focus on right now.
The biggest star of the night, Ava Duvernay, was missing, as she was off in New Zealand filming her next movie, so that took a little of the star power out of the evening, but in general we didn’t expect a lot of that. The docs are the intellectual side of H-town, the time for the bookish people get together to have their moment away from the gleaming, polished movie stars.
Rory Kennedy (Moderator), Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo (Fire At Sea), Hébert Peck, Raoul Peck, and Rémi Grellety (I Am Not Your Negro), Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman (Life, Animated), Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow (O.J.: Made in America), Spencer Averick and Howard Barish (13th).
Written by Kerry McGuire (LA Correspondent for Pen To Paper Media)