Will Win/Should Win: Best Documentary Oscar a Close Call

Will Faces Places, Strong Island, Icarus, Abacus or Last Men in Aleppo win Best Documentary?

By Pat Mullen (with one emotional aside by Marc Glassman)

It’s an open race for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. The doc category might be the hardest call of the night and may make or break any ballot in the Oscar pool. The simple fact is that Brett Morgen’s Jane, which didn’t get a nomination, steamrolled the awards that generally serve as the best indicators for an Oscar win. It scooped honours from the Producers Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, the American Cinema Editors, and the Critics’ Choice Awards while generally splitting the prizes from various critics’ groups with Agnès Varda and JR’s Faces Places.

The Documentary branch has put forth five contenders and voting, which ended yesterday, from the full 7000 or so members of the Academy determining the winner. With Jane bizarrely out of the race, predicting the Oscar win is akin to spitting on one’s finger and holding it up to the wind. It really comes down to subject matter, taste, and precedent.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature:

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail: Steve James’s latest doc displays his ongoing commitment to social activist filmmaking as he chronicles the legal battle of the Sung family in New York. Abacus documents their Chinatown bank Abacus Federal Savings as the Sungs fight to clear their name as the only bank to be charged for mortgage fraud following the economic crisis and housing market crash of 2008. It’s a powerful David and Goliath tale that draws upon the power dynamics of race and inequality in America and asks how one system of finance can be applied to the unique networks of trade and community that make the nation so diverse. Abacus astonishingly marks the first nomination in the documentary category for James. Up to this year, James held two of the biggest pre- Jane Oscar doc snubs ever with Hoop Dreams and Life Itself, which are arguably much better and more widely lauded movies than Abacus. The doc is a very fine and significant film in its own right, but is a solid B+ enough to win an Oscar? Watch the broadcast cut of Abacus on CBC.

Faces Places: This whimsical masterpiece is the critical favourite now that Jane is out of the race. Faces Places is the reigning festival champ on the documentary front having won both the juried L’Oeil d’or documentary prize at Cannes and the People’s Choice Award for documentary at Toronto. It also has wins from the key critics’ groups (Toronto, New York, Los Angeles and the National Society of Film Critics). These awards are evidence of the film’s ability to delight highbrow critics and discerning audiences alike. Faces Places is an essential portrait on the value of representation as the filmmakers intimately connect the communities of rural France and the land. They give time to oft-forgotten faces outside the bustling metropolis of Paris and put unexpected portraits in unconventional places, like one of three women in the typically male space of a shipping yard. Faces Places sounds like a sure winner given all these factors, yet the Academy has never given the Oscar to a poetic, auteurist documentary. (Unless one calls Bowling for Columbine an auteur piece.) Might the effusive joie de vivre and accessibility of the film make it seem too “lightweight” to reward?

Faces Places
Cohen Media Group

Marc adds: This is not only the finest doc of the year; it’s simply the finest film in any genre. Varda, who started out as a photographer, returns to her roots through the collaboration with J.R., who uses photos blown up to mega-poster size, to make stars out of “ordinary” people. The whimsy of this film allows viewers to do the same thing: to consider what makes a solid unassuming worker as worthy of being photographed as a politician or musician or model.

A meditation on sight, Faces Places becomes explicit as Varda reveals that her own vision is going and one realizes how much this outstanding film artist has made use of her eyes to record the world for us. As the maker of Cléo from 5 to 7, One Sings, the Other Doesn’t and Jane B. by Agnes V., she presented a true feminist vision of the world, with an emphasis on communication between women, not through men. With Vagabond and The Gleaners and I, she looked with brutality and grace and compassion at homelessness. She has moved with more skill and passion between documentaries and fiction films than any other filmmaker in the world. No one alive is worthier of an Oscar than Agnes Varda.

Icarus: Bryan Fogel’s Icarus is a winner already regardless of the outcome on Oscar night. This riveting doc about the Russian drug doping scandal is Super Size Me meets Citizenfour as the filmmaker undergoes the same drug-doping tactics used by athletes like Lance Armstrong. The study spirals into a headline-making incident when his assistant, Grigory Rodchenkov, head of Russia’s Anti-Doping Centre, blows the whistle on his country’s systemic doping history with the Olympics. Icarus is a robustly assembled and engaging film, but also one that affects change since the actions of Fogel and Rodchenknov have resulted in Russia’s inability to compete at this year’s Olympics in an official status. While Icarus has yet to receive any major win on the awards circuit (it earned BAFTA and DGA nominations), the timeliness of the film is hard to ignore. Netflix reportedly spends more on Oscar campaigning for documentaries than all the other distributors combined, so while the streaming site has yet to be embraced beyond the documentary categories, it has the biggest reach. But will voters go for a film that’s already just a click away?

Last Men in Aleppo: Of all the films to tackle the Civil War in Syria this year, Last Men in Aleppo is hardly the best. Two docs that made the Oscar shortlist, Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts and Ai Weiwei’s migration saga Human Flow, are much better, but last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Last Men in Aleppo is the victor to represent them all. One cannot deny that director Feras Fayyad finds some emotionally compelling footage in the courageous work of the White Helmets as they save citizens of Aleppo from the rubble and violence wrought by ISIS. The film finds beauty in the horror with artful compositions of the bombed-out remains, while the poetic image of a goldfish that survives amongst the ruins offers a symbol of endurance. The artistic flair is divisive and, in some eyes, inappropriate. Last Men in Aleppo also draws criticism for championing the White Helmets uncritically, since some cynical commentators and film critics scoff at their motivations, while others wonder about their allegedly propagandistic origins. But The White Helmets won a well-deserved Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject) last year, so they may be heroes in the Academy’s eyes. Will voters be swayed by controversy or follow their hearts?

Strong Island: Yance Ford’s biting exploration of his brother’s death is powerful and poetic. The director draws upon family photographs and intimate interviews to interrogate dynamics of violence and institutionalized racism as he reassesses the crime in which his unarmed brother was shot to death, yet the killer was never indicted for the murder. Strong Island is a searing analysis of race and a broken justice system, and a call to action to recognize the needs of families who lose loved ones to violence. Ford turns the camera on himself in direct address confessionals that expand the frame of the story and inject his transgender experience to further the discussion of exclusion that is pervasive in American society. While Strong Island is a very difficult film to watch, it’s also the most magnetic work of all the nominees as Ford rewrites the art form for true crime storytelling in a profoundly personal way. The film is very well regarded by the documentary community with three awards from the Cinema Eye honours and a documentary win at the Gotham Awards, but it has oddly struggled for representation among the year-end gongs that fuel the gauntlet. Can Netflix’s shrewd campaigning capture the Black Lives Matter zeitgeist to expand the vote beyond the documentary community’s esteem?

Last Men in Aleppo

Will win: It’s a very hard call. Abacus might be the odd one out simply by process of elimination. It’s great but the most conventional of the lot. Strong Island is the dark horse if viewers can stick with it and be awed by Ford’s revelatory approach to race and violence. The biggest hurdle for Faces Places was landing a nomination from the conventional doc branch, and the warmth and accessibility of the film could be its downfall if voters don’t deem the art project “important” enough to win. Varda is also one of this year’s honorary Oscar recipients, and while that fact underscores the raw deal that female filmmakers have seen over the years, and how much people love both the film and her, the fact that she’s already getting an award might suffice.

Icarus and Last Men in Aleppo, on the other hand, can duke it out to see which subject is more “significant” in the mainstream eye. The former film might play better more broadly as a beefed-up sports doc and slick piece of reportage, while the latter gets into the thick of a war and finds the most emotionally compelling material of the nominees. Aleppo also has the added urgency in the fact that its producer and subject cannot attend the Oscars due to Trump’s Muslim ban. That fact proved to be a rallying point for Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, whose The Salesman won Best Foreign Language Film last year after he declined to attend the ceremony in solidarity with citizens of Arab nations affected by the ban. The Academy’s somewhat unethical choice to issue a statement in support of Last Men in Aleppo at the start of Oscar voting might also be a tip to voters that this documentary is the kind of film they “should” be supporting and give the doc a slight edge over the other nominees. (The support is warranted, but should have been given once voting closed.) Pundits, insiders, and betting sites have the odds in favour of Faces Places and Icarus, but something in the air points to Aleppo as the winner.

[Update: shortly after voting closed, it was reported that producer Kareem Abeed was granted a travel visa. Film subject Mahmoud Al-Hattar, co-founder of the White Helmets, is still being denied a travel visa by the Syrian government.]

Faces Places
Cohen Media Group

Should win: Faces Places should run away with this contest, while allowing voters to give a very respectable nod to Strong Island. Whether a die-hard doc fan or casual moviegoer, one is bound to connect with the pure bliss of Faces Places. It’s is also a love letter to motion pictures as the film integrates Varda’s failing eyesight. Her candid conversations with JR offer a bittersweet farewell to the eyes that have transformed the way the world sees itself through film. The Academy hasn’t gone for a poetic documentary in the 89 years that Agnès Varda has blessed this Earth. She and JR deserve to break that record with Faces Places.

Should have been there: Jane, obviously, but Amanda Lipitz’s empowering dance doc Step deserved a slot, as did Ceyda Torun’s delightful and magically made cat doc Kedi.

On the shorts front, we’ll say Edith+Eddie takes the win, but Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 is the best. Read more on the Oscar shorts in this look at the five contenders.