2013 Documentaries

Two in a Row for Rock Docs in Oscar Category

In the end, it may have been that much-lauded “The Act of Killing” was just a wee bit too radical for the Academy voters (see previous post), so for the second year in a row the statuette for best feature documentary went to a music film. The vivacious and lovable “20 Feet from Stardom” was probably as deserving a winner in what is by its very nature an apples-and-oranges competition. And thanks to the unstoppable Darlene Love, the acceptance “speech” turned into one of the night’s most memorable moments:

Ms. Love was a subject of the film and not one of the actual award winners, but when director Morgan Neville and the producers let her do her thing it could only help the already raised profile of a feelgood film that has connected with over 500,000 people in its theatrical release, great numbers for a documentary.

Exactly one year ago today, I began this blog by mentioning the recent Oscar win of “Searching for Sugar Man”, the second rock doc to win the award, the other being “Woodstock” way back in 1970. Now there are two in a row and there may be more to follow. The redemptive or belated-recognition pop music documentary has really taken off in recent years and will probably only get more popular as rock and roll’s golden age recedes ever into the past.

Sixto “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, whose luckless career as a singer-songwriter was salvaged by the unlikely admiration bestowed upon him decades later by countless South Africans or Darlene Love, whose ace lead vocals went uncredited on a #1 single in 1963 and who (along with many other studio vocalists) had to fight against forced anonymity and industry ill treatment, are just two of the better known examples of this mini-genre. “New York Doll” was when it first came to me as a distinct subset (in 2005) and there’s been many since then, with “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” and “Gene Clark: The Byrd Who Flew Alone” next up in my docket.


“Now it’s time to leave the capsule, if you dare”

I’ll leave the discussion of Hollywood’s big night to the 173 million other media outlets that hash it over. However, I was a tad disappointed that the science fiction genre was once again passed up as a legit contender for Best Picture. It was nice to see the visionary Alfonso Cuaron win for Best Director and in my mind was due one about seven years ago for the masterful “Children of Men.” But in the end “12 Years as a Slave” had more gravitas than “Gravity” (sorry) and already tedious idiomatic arguments about whether his nominated film was even science fiction or just a disaster film shot in outer space have sworn me off the subject for some time to come. Meanwhile, we have in Steve McQueen the first African-American director of a winning picture and how cool is that?

Another good outcome was that “Wolf of Wall Street” came away empty-handed and so depraved felon Jordan Belfort, who somehow got his claws into Martin Scorcese, does not for the moment have any further reason to laugh in the faces of the American citizenry that he ripped off so unrepentantly. Here’s hoping that Marty can re-connect aesthetically with the human race in 2014 while documentarians the world over continue their quest for truth, justice and discovery.

(I found out my choice for best feature documentary Oscar–Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square”–did win that prize at the recent awards show of the International Documentary Association, so congrats. At the same event the great Alex Gibney, who made “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “The Armstrong Lie” among his over two dozen directorial eforts, won the IDA’s annual Lifetime Acheivement award).

Here’s a list of Academy Award-winning feature documentaries starting with Michael Wadleigh’s great Woodstock film 43 years ago:

1971—The Hellstrom Chronicle
1973—The Great American Cowboy
1974—Hearts and Minds
1975—The Man Who Skied Down Everest
1976—Harlan County, USA
1977—Who Are the DeBolts?
1978—Scared Straight
1979—Best Boy
1980—From Mao to Mozart
1982—Just Another Missing Kid
1983—He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’
1984—The Times of Harvey Milk
1985—Broken Rainbow
1986—Artie Shaw: Time is All I Got and Down and Out in America (tie)
1987—The Ten Year Lunch
1988—Hotel Terminus
1989—Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt
1990—American Dream
1991—In the Shadow of the Stars
1992—The Panama Deception
1993—I Am a Promise
1994—Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
1995—Anne Frank Rembered
1996—When We Were Kings
1997—The Long Way Home
1998—The Last Days
1999—One Day in September
2000—Into the Arms of Strangers
2001—Murder on a Sunday Morning
2002—Bowling for Columbine
2003—The Fog of War
2004—Born into Brothels
2005—March of the Penguins
2006—An Inconvenient Truth
2007—Taxi to the Dark Side
2008—Man on Wire
2009—The Cove
2010—Inside Job
2012—Searching for Sugar Man

Documentary Oscar Pool Party Spectacular

Just in case your office Oscar pool doesn’t include the documentary category, Vote Here for what you think will (and/or should be) the winner for Feature Documentary. This could end up being the smallest poll sample in history but why not. Although it hardly rates next to races like Cate Blanchett vs. Amy Adams for best actress, for instance, the fact is that new breeds of non-fiction film have creeped into the public consciousness, esp. when it comes to home viewing and film festivals. Mark your virtual ballot below (by commenting)for one of five nominees:

The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
The Square
Dirty Wars
20 Feet From Stardom

I’ve seen 3 of 5 so far. Of the ones I haven’t seen, “Cutie and the Boxer” from all I hear is a vibrant bio of painter Ushio Shinohara and his illustrator wife, Noriko. It joins a growing list of fascinating art-related docs in recent years. “Who the @#$% is Jackson Pollock?” “The Art of the Steal”, “Exit through the Gift Shop” and “My Kid Could Paint That” are other recommendations in this mini-genre and the just-released “Tim’s Vermeer” sounds like a must-see as well. Some will favor “Dirty Wars” by Richard Rowley and investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. But after finally putting out my book “Documentary 101” last year, and writing about the numerous great but sobering films ranging down from the Holocaust to Vietnam to the Iran/Afghan wars, I wasn’t rushing pell mell to see another just to confirm my worst fears. But Scahill is an experienced war correspondent and a stand-up guy not afraid to stir the pot. He has an advocate in Bill Maher, who threw in his vote for “Dirty Wars” on the Feb. 14th edition of his HBO show. He thanked panelist Scahill for all his work, “while we still have you”, joking that there may be a drone out there with the reporter’s name on it.

The real crowd-pleaser of this quintet is “20 Feet From Stardom”, one of the better entries in what could constitute another mini-genre: the belated-recognition rock doc. It gives some of pop and soul’s best back-up singers their day in the sun, while also looking back on backstories of music-biz exploitation and cold-shouldered solo careers. But considering that last year’s winner (“Searching for Sugar Man”), about the long-delayed recognition of forgotten 70s singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, was in a similar vein, it may be that Academy voters will be looking elsewhere. That is, if it can be said that voters in the Documentary Feature category, long known for their arcane methodology, even think like that.

At any rate, the real buzz in the non-fiction form this year has been about “The Act of Killing.” This is as brilliantly conceived and daring a film that came out last year in any category. First time director Joshua Oppenheimer had set out to film surviving relatives of the approximately 500,000 Indonesian Communists and other perceived enemies killed in a 1965 purge that established long-term authoritarian rule in that country. But anti-leftist sentiment there is still so strong that this concept became unworkable and, reportedly on the suggestion of one of the survivors, hatched the idea of turning his cameras on the aging members of the killing squads, eventually encouraging them to cinematically re-create their ghastly deeds of a half-century ago.
(Below is an interview clip with Oppenheimer that also includes the film’s trailer)

It turns out that this gambit, designed to affect a sort of negative catharsis for sanctioned mass murderers who are still revered as heroes, leads to some fascinating filmic moments. Main subject Anwar Congo and his associates come from a “gangster” culture, a word that has a positive ring for many in the political culture. It also has a lot to do with movie culture as Anwar and his fellow ex-war criminals, as slick and as full of references as Tarantino stock players, readily acquit themselves as filmmakers with results both grisly (a reenactment of a beheading) or downright campy (a musical number by a waterfall featuring Anwar’s stocky male friend (also from the notorious Pemuda Pancasila paramilitaries) in drag. Oppenheimer’s “documentary of the imagination” records this process almost as a beguiling dream/nightmare state that is stylistically brilliant.

The complimentary “gangster” is, to them, the linguistic equivalent of “free man.” Shaking down humble merchants and pining for the good old days before the pesky concept of “human rights”, you wonder why these guys don’t get recruited by Wall St. wolves or the North Korean government. Since Oppenheimer was unable to be openly critical of his subjects (many folks in the end credits are listed as “Anonymous”) don’t expect any to have any conventional sense of justice satisfied. The guilt and remorse is buried so deep it can barely be excavated from Anwar Congo himself in the film’s climatic scene, even though he has taken part in Oppenheimer’s provocative premise. But there is some hope as officials in Indonesia have had to acknowledge the film and even to let it slip that these were war crimes being referred to and not some heroic deed from the past.

Still, in the end my vote has to go to “The Square”, an absolutely riveting and literally street-level look at the mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 that led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. After the unceremonial departure of their autocratic leader, Epypt—an immemorial country with little or no background in democracy—was convulsed by a series of demonstrations, counter-demonstrations, civil resistance, occupations and riots to try and determine what came next. Director Jehane Noujaim (who also made the excellent “Control Room” and “Startup.com”) was there with her camera for as much of the so-called Lotus Revolution and it’s still-unresolved aftermath as she could and still have a release date. Originally released by its producer Netflix in Jan. 2013, she has updated it in later releases throughout the past year. Seldom has a documentary felt this immediate in its impact.
(Below interview clip with Noujaim also includes trailer)

Noujaim had followed the revolution’s affect by focusing in on the participation of several people. In the final film, there are mainly three story arcs: that of the young secular idealist Ahmed; Magdy, a thoughtful member of the Muslim Brotherhood who becomes friends with Ahmed; and actor-activist Khalid Abdalla (star of “The Kite Runner”) who returns to his homeland to help man the barricades. With what’s going on in the world today, most notably in the Ukraine and Thailand, “The Square” is a bracing reminder that for so many the only way to affect change against forces of oppression is to enter into a mortal struggle with forces more powerful than yourself. As in so many places, in Egypt the buck stops with the army and a decision on whether or not to use fatal firepower. (In this case, you also have the organizational power of the Brotherhood who elected the ill-fated Mohamed Morsi in 2012). At present, it looks like the military holds the winning hand but the people power unleashed in Tahrir Square in January of 2011 cannot be held back forever, or at least that’s the hope you take away from Noujaim’s extraordinary film.


A Forty-Year Oscar Flashback in the Best Documentary Category

The scathing anti-Vietnam War film “Hearts and Minds” won the Academy Award for top Documentary Feature of 1974, and the acceptance speeches by director Peter Davis and producer Bert Schneider touched off one of the more interesting backstage brouhahas in an awards show that has been no stranger to controversy over the years. Schneider got the crowd especially riled up, speaking of Vietnam’s impending “liberation” and reading a telegram from the Viet Cong delegation at the Paris peace talks that recognized the efforts of American anti-war protestors. Offstage, Bob Hope was furious and proceeded to make a big scene. The unctuous comedian had looked bad in a brief scene in “Hearts and Minds” where he spoke appreciatively of his “captive audience”: a roomful of ex-POWS at a White House dinner. Hope got Frank Sinatra, cohosting the show that year with fellow Rat Packers, to read a disavowal, getting the same mixture of boos and cheers that Davis and Schneider earned only minutes earlier, reflecting the polarizing effects of the war. The documentary category would remain a fairly quiet one on the Big Night until 2003 and Michael Moore’s notorious “shame on you!” harangue aimed at President George W. Bush over the recently launched Iraq war.