The Oscars are upon us! Let the movie talk continue! The categories that evaluate feature length films are: Best Picture, Animated Feature Film, Foreign Language Film, and Best Documentary Feature. We began examining the documentaries previously with a look at Cutie and the Boxer. This category is unique in that all the nominees are currently accessible online. The Best Documentary Feature category is also interesting because of the additional expectations viewers frequently attach to its nominees.
When we’re evaluating the narrative or animation categories it’s expected that the Oscar winner will emerge as the film representing the strongest example of story and craft. But, for documentaries, is a great film enough to win? This is the genre that, before coming into its own, spent decades as the slightly boring, not as pretty cousin of fiction. With that in mind, does the potential a documentary has to reach beyond a strictly nonfiction audience demonstrate the highest level of achievement? If so, is it reasonable to assume that the Oscar should go to the doc with the widest mainstream appeal?
Or, maybe we should focus on the 15 minutes of fame an Oscar bestows upon its recipients. In the narrative and animation categories this spotlight shines on the filmmakers. With the nonfiction selections, the limelight is naturally shared by the cause or issue the film explores. An Academy Award is undeniably a powerful opportunity to direct the public’s attention toward something meaningful. With this reality in mind, is it fair to say the Oscar belongs to the doc that exposes viewers to the most critical stories and essential information?
Do these questions seem unfair? The Oscar is meant to recognize excellence in filmmaking. All movies essentially tell stories regardless of their genre. Perhaps, the documentary category is no different than narrative or animation and should be reviewed accordingly. In that case, if we’re returning to the criteria of story and craft, should the Oscar go to the doc that is the strongest and most groundbreaking in terms of style and form?
With all of these questions in mind, let’s consider the remaining 4 nominees: 20 Feet from Stardom, The Square, Dirty Wars, and The Act of Killing. It goes without saying that each of these films (along with 5th nominee, Cutie and the Boxer) is a strong piece of work, worthy of your attention. Choosing which should get the Oscar comes down to what you believe “Best Documentary Feature” actually means.
If the Oscar belongs to the doc with the widest mainstream appeal then 20 Feet from Stardom, directed by Morgan Neville, is the winner. Music lovers will adore this fun, fast paced look at the music industry and the rich new perspective it offers. You’ll see Sting, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, and a whole lineup of music icons. But, the focus here is on their backup singers who are mostly African American women. Incredible stars in their own right, the women’s stories highlight both the talent and the sacrifices it takes to be in the background.
Touching, smart, talented, and, above all, inspirational, the women are the heart of 20 Feet from Stardom. Darlene Love’s narrative is particularly strong. Her story of leaving the music industry and finally returning on her own terms is powerful. Darlene’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame toward the end of the movie is a well-earned triumph for her and for the film’s viewers. Merry Clayton is another memorable and stirring presence. The image of her sitting alone and smiling, as she and Mick Jagger reminisce about her performance recording “Gimme Shelter”, is rich and wonderful. Judith Hill’s experience of currently trying to make the difficult and calculated leap to solo artist rounds out the film.
Perhaps in an effort to appeal to the widest demographic, Neville clearly makes the decision to keep 20 Feet from Stardom light, entertaining, and moving. The film doesn’t shy away from mentioning the darker issues the women profiled face. But, the narrative typically doesn’t linger. This feels like a calculated strategy. While some viewers will likely be aching to dig deeper, others will breath a sigh of relief as the movie quickly bounces back into the more comfortable realm of the inspirational.
If the Oscar belongs to the doc that presents the most critical stories and perspectives the winner will either be The Square or Dirty Wars. The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim, offers an intimate look at the Egyptian Revolution. It begins with the initial uprising that took place in Tahrir Square in January 2011 and continues through 2013 when President Morsi was ousted. While the beginning of the revolution was widely covered, The Square sticks with the story long after many media outlets have turned their attention and cameras to other issues.
The Square is fascinating with its on-the-ground portrayal of history in the making. Without the clarity that time brings to all things, we see how confusing a revolution in progress actually is. The doc grants viewers the access and ability to watch people figure out what their next step as a collective should be when different factions want and need different things. The Square reminds of us of all sorts of truths. Individuals will risk being beaten and worse for freedom and ideals. Large groups of people can be divided and manipulated, especially during the chaos of change. And, perhaps, most importantly, cameras legitimize things. As long as there’s coverage, there’s a revolution.
Ultimately this doc comes across as both an exploration of human rights violations and an inspirational story of people who will not be stopped. Standouts, like Ahmed Hassan and Khalid Abdalla, make the viewer believe individuals can bring change to their country. Hassan’s revelation, that while the situation in Egypt is far from resolved the fact that children now play “protest” is a success, will stay with the viewer.
Continuing with the idea that presenting critical information reflects a documentary’s highest purpose and therefore achievement, Dirty Wars, directed by Rick Rowley, should be on a required viewing list for all Americans. The film follows investigative journalist, Jeremy Scahill, as his questions on America’s war tactics take him from Afghanistan, to Yemen, to Somalia. Kevin Gosztola interviewed Scahill for FDL right before Dirty Wars was publicly released. Their fantastic conversation is worth taking a look at to gain further insight into the film.
Dirty Wars’ power comes from not only its content but also its ability to stay engaging as it transfers large quantities of information to the viewer. This is incredibly delicate work. One misstep and the audience will be nodding off. But Rowley and the rest of the team hit on the right formula by pulling the viewer into a dynamic investigation rather than presenting findings. We essentially become Dr. Watsons to Scahill’s Sherlock Holmes. Scahill is both engaging and articulate. His ability to synthesize information and connect all the dots in an emerging story is fully utilized. This makes the film accessible, riveting, and ultimately, successful.
Perhaps, the greatest achievement of Dirty Wars is its ability to put faces on the victims of America’s violence. The families that appear are powerful in their confusion, loss, pain, and, in some cases, hatred. The death of a 16-year-old U.S. citizen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, is particularly vivid and haunting. We hear Abdulrahman’s family describe him as a normal teenager who was having dinner with friends when a U.S. drone blew him up. His grandfather reflects on Abdulrahman’s curly hair. That hair is how a cousin ultimately identifies what’s left of his body. Scahill poses the idea that Abdulrahman was not killed for what he’d done but whom he might one day become. This logic and its implicit warning, uncomfortably reminiscent of the fictional movie Minority Report, will ring in your ears as the film asks, “Somehow, in front of our eyes, undeclared wars have been launched in countries across the globe- foreigners and citizens alike assassinated by presidential decree. The war on terror transformed into a self-fulfilling prophecy. How does a war like this ever end? And what happens to us when we finally see what’s hidden in plain sight?”
If the Oscar belongs to the doc that is most groundbreaking in terms of its achievements in style and form than the clear winner is Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing. You haven’t seen a film like this before. In 1965, the Indonesian military took over the government. In less than a year, over 1 million people were accused of being “communists” and murdered. The Act of Killing introduces us to the gangsters that carried out these killings (still powerful men today) and asks them to reenact their crimes. Oppenheimer’s camera follows these men as they use costumes, makeup, and memory to design, cast, and execute scenes bringing their exploits to life.
We’re certainly familiar with using documentary to explore mass murder and genocide. But, The Act of Killing’s approach is new. An opening quote from Voltaire sets the tone: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore, all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, the two main gangsters the film follows, aren’t contrite. In one memorable scene, Congo scouts a reenactment site and recounts the problems of beating people to death- too much blood to clean. He then demonstrates his homemade solution, a wire device that will cleanly choke someone to death. Where did he get the idea? From the movies, of course.
This type of reflexivity- media inspiring real life inspiring media- is explored throughout the film. Congo and Koto are delighted to talk about John Wayne, Marlon Brando, and Al Pacino as sources for inspiration. Now, finally in the movies themselves, the scenes they create are haunting, disturbing, and in some ways mind blowing when the action cuts for things like evening prayer. The Act of Killing constantly finds ways to shock its viewer: a brutal, uncomfortable performance is applauded at the end by cheering children and smiling families. A killer reviews footage of a scene, talking about the murders he committed, and reacts by planning to wear different pants next time he’s filmed. This movie’s humor is perhaps its most shocking component. In its own way, it reveals as effectively as any teary testimonial, the horror and senselessness of violence.
So which doc will win? Share your pick in the comments and watch tonight to find out how the Academy voted!