‘Free Solo’, ‘Period’ Win Doc Oscars

By Pat Mullen

This year’s Academy Awards featured a mix of progressive winners and retrograde choices. Fortunately, the documentary portion of the night favoured the former with the wins for high-climbing doc Free Solo and human rights saga Period. End of Sentence. providing two of the many categories that highlighted women behind the camera and diverse voices in film. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, one of the directors of feature doc winner Free Solo, took the stage and thanked National Geographic for hiring women and people of colour. “We only make the films better,” she said after accepting the award from a fist pumping Jason Momoa. (The Aquaman star is a climber himself.) Standing alongside her co-director and husband Jimmy Chin, and producers Shannon Dill and Evan Hayes, Vasarhelyi cheered on the film’s subjects, Alex Honnold and Sanni McCandless, while Chin thanked the high-climbing team who helped get Free Solo’s vertigo-inducing shots from the peaks of El Capitan. (Read the POV review of Free Solo here.)

The win for Free Solo offered some redemption for National Geographic after being shut out last year when Brett Morgen’s Jane was snubbed on nomination day following an aggressive campaign. Free Solo, which follows Honnold as he climbs Yosemite Park’s El Capitan without the safety of nets or ropes, made for back to back wins for sports docs after the adrenaline-pumping Icarus won last year. The doc edged out some close competition with Ruth Bader Ginsburg doc RBG after frontrunner Won’t You Be My Neighbor? failed to make the final ballot. All three docs were major box office success stories of 2018.

The Free Solo team might have been bested by the short doc team as director Rayka Zehtabchi and producer Melissa Berton delivered one of the most crowd-pleasing and empowering speeches of the night with their win for the uplifting short doc Period. End of Sentence., Upon taking the stage, Zehtabchi joked, “I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything” and praised the Academy for recognizing a film about menstruation. Zehtabchi and Berton used the stage to highlight the many women involved in the film who helped put a human rights issue on a global stage. The doc tells the story of a community in rural India that works together to make sanitary pads for women in an effort to destigmatize menstruation and educate villagers about healthy practices. “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education,” proclaimed Berton in a moment that several Oscar watchers dubbed the best line of the night.

Outside of the doc categories, the Oscars brought some notable firsts including an award for Toronto-born filmmaker Domee Shi, whose Bao took home Best Animated Short after she made history as the first woman to direct a Pixar short. Other firsts included Black Panther costume designer Ruth Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler as the first African American women to win in their respective categories. Additional highlights of the night included a politically charged speech by director Spike Lee, who scooped Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman and urged people to “do the right thing” by voting in 2020, while surprise Best Actress winner Olivia Colman (The Favourite) ousted heavy favourite Glenn Close and provided one of the most genuine and candid moments of the evening. Without any host to fill the gaps between awards, the show relied heavily on the emotions of the winners and they mostly delivered.

Another big winner of the night was the Toronto International Film Festival, which added to its tally of People’s Choice Award champions going on to score Oscars. Both Free Solo and Best Picture winner Green Book kicked off their campaigns by scooping the TIFF People’s Choice Awards for documentary and for the overall favourite, respectively, last September. However, the Green Book win, an upset over Alfonso Cuarón’s artful masterpiece Roma, ended a night that felt like two steps forward and one-step back for the Academy. Green Book drew considerable controversy for what many viewers found to be a tone deaf and simplified portrait of race relations in the USA. As one pundit put it, last night was the second time Spike Lee lost to Driving Miss Daisy. At least the doc crowd got it right!

Get the full list of winners here.