What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Dec. 4

Fox Searchlight Pictures

By Pat Mullen

Our latest round-up of documentary news and views from the web comes as we await the annual Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature, which means that awards campaigners are ramping up their efforts in the increasingly competitive field. The biggest and boldest of players on the documentary front right now is arguably Netflix, which has crashed the system and broken barriers for streaming sites with great success in the documentary categories landing nominations for features such as What Happened, Miss Simone?, Winter on Fire, and The Square, and a win last year for the short The White Helmets. Netflix is in the hunt again with Chasing Coral, Cries from Syria, Icarus, Jim & Andy, One of Us, and Strong Island, the latter of which is a frontrunner. The success of Netflix with the Oscars remains a testy situation for the Academy, which requires theatrical releases for eligibility. Vanity Fair digs into the complex battles between Netflix and Oscar, which could shake up the documentary front given the increasing viability of streaming sites for connecting documentaries with audiences:

“Why the resistance? [Ted] Sarandos is a sweet guy. Smart, affable, a big supporter of movies. Plenty of folks in town acknowledge that the streaming business his company pioneered is their future. But Netflix’s sole agenda is to release its mass of content—both film and television—directly to the consumer, ignoring the sacred engine of the movie business: the movie theater. It is committed to this so-called day-and-date strategy with a near-religious fervor. So while Sarandos may be instrumental in helping to erect Los Angeles’s first monument to the film industry, he’s seen by many in the Academy as Public Enemy Number One when it comes to dismantling the very palaces that started the business.” Should the Academy reconsider its preference for theatrical releases, or does that stipulation make the race out of touch?

One Netflix film we noted in the previous What’s Up, Doc? round-up that would not be eligible for the documentary prize is Errol Morris’s multi-part true crime hybrid Wormwood. The film can still scoop nominations for everything else since Oscar’s rules are wonky. (Following the win for ESPN’s OJ: Made in America, a mini-series may not be eligible even if it screens in full theatrically. This rule, however, was created exclusively for the documentary category.) A trailer recently dropped for the documentary, which looks outstanding and is sure to revive the debate over whether a work is film or television—or if the question even matters any more:

Over at Variety, Addie Morfoot says that first time might be the charm for filmmakers when it comes to the Oscar doc race. Morfoot looks at the recent track record of winners, nominees, and shortlisted filmmakers who succeeded over established veterans and past winners. First timers such as Ezra Edelman (O.J.: Made in America), Louie Psihoyos (The Cove) and the late Malik Bendjelloul (Searching for Sugarman) are among recent directors to take home the Oscar out of the gate, while a seasoned director like Barbara Kopple hasn’t landed a nomination since scooping her second Academy Award in 1991 for American Dream (heck, she should have won again for Shut Up and Sing), while master Steve James has never been nominated despite making some of the most acclaimed docs ever including Hoop Dreams and Life Itself. “It’s never easy being green, but if you’re a documentary filmmaker it can have its advantages. Especially come Oscar season,” writes Morfoot. “In the past two decades, 12 directors have taken home the Academy Award for their very first documentary theatrical feature…When it comes to receiving a nomination in the documentary feature category, the odds are even better.” Is ageism Oscar’s next controversy?

One film we’re rooting for in the Oscar race is Step, directed by Broadway producer Amanda Lipitz in her directorial debut. Lipitz talks with The Playlist’s podcast The Fourth Quadrant while on the campaign trail after attending the Governor’s Awards earlier in November. The director discusses the incredible journey of her Sundance-award winning film about the step dancing team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, growing with the girls, translating her theatrical experience of Broadway to the big screen, and recalibrating the film following the death of Freddie Gray. There is also exciting news about Lipitz’s next doc and hopes for a movie musical!. After listening to Lipitz’s conversation on the podcast, read more about Step in our chat with the director and our (rave) review from Hot Docs earlier this year.

Switching gears to look at some of the Canadian content, Katie Hyslop at The Tyee reconsiders the legacy of Vancouver’s Odd Squad productions as it reaches its 20th anniversary. The controversial production company founded by Sgt. Mark Steinkampf and Sgt. Al Arsenault seeks to deter young Canadians from drug use by showing frank depictions of substance abuse by addicts who share their experiences and testimonies. Odd Squad is best known for the 1999 documentary Through a Blue Lens, a difficult verité film that features addicts tripping on drugs and recalling their experiences, but are these depictions productive and effective? Hyslop isn’t sure. “There have been no formal evaluations of the Odd Squad’s effectiveness in meeting its goals of ‘educating youth to focus on their potential,’ as Steinkampf put it, instead of experimenting with drugs,” writes Hyslop while going on to interview experts in the field to learn about more contemporary approaches to education, noting, “the best prevention programs don’t focus on drugs as much as they promote critical thinking and resiliency skills.” What are other docs that add to the conversation about education and empathy when it comes to addiction?

Through a Blue Lens, Veronica Alice Mannix, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

For a really different—and very awkward—conversation about documentary, watch what happens when Buzzfeed tasks a roundtable with discussing a bunch of clips from propaganda films…directed by Steve Bannon! The Twitter punching bag and former Chief Strategist for President Trump also makes “documentaries” in addition to peddling right-wing nonsense at Breitbart. Bannon cites (surprisingly) Michael Moore and (unsurprisingly) Leni Riefenstahl among his influences, but the responses from the panelists indicate that there’s really an art to the filmmaking the others do. Perhaps we have a contender for the next filmmaker retrospective at Hot Docs? (Kidding, kidding!)

Over at Documentary magazine, Frako Loden finds a doc figure worth celebrating and profiles Abigail Disney, the recipient of the International Documentary Association’s annual Amicus Award. The prize recognizes “an individual who has been a great supporter, financially or otherwise, of documentary filmmaking.” Disney (yes, a member of that Disney family!) is the producer of acclaimed films such as Pray the Devil Back to Hell and Women, War & Peace, the director of Armour of Light, and the supporter of numerous documentaries through Fork Films, which produces and finances social impact films with a commitment towards fostering women behind the camera. “I do come from a social-justice background, so it matters to me that a filmmaker has some kind of plan for affecting the world,” says Disney in the interview. “I want viewers to get out of bed the next day with some different idea about how to be in the world because of the film. We favor films that have outreach plans, plans for affecting the world.”

One film among Disney’s credits as an executive producer is the powerful Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War, directed by Kirby Dick, about sexual assault in the military. The film is more relevant than ever with the industry-wide upheaval with abusers of power ousted in the wake of allegations of sexual assault and harassment. POV contributor Matt Hays asks how the film industry can move forward to correct these wrongs and make a safer, more inclusive workplace for women. In an excellent article for Time, Hays uses the pioneering, if imperfect, efforts of the NFB’s Studio D unit, which created a unique place for women filmmakers, as a model to which Hollywood could inspire. Looking at groundbreaking works such as Forbidden Love: The Unashamed Stories of Lesbian Lives and the Oscar-winning If You Love this Planet, Hays writes, “I still screen all of these films in my classes whenever I can. They remain vital, fresh and pertinent, and in many cases were films made by first-time directors. They prove that when a space is carved out for women to pursue filmmaking, they can succeed on their own terms, and create cinema that is distinct, powerful and every bit as full of creative ideas as films made by men.”

Short Film of the Week:

We close this week’s round-up with a nod to one of Canada’s most significant directors who blazed trails on her own terms. The incomparable Alanis Obomsawin delivers her 51st film with the short doc Walking is Medicine, which is one of five short films produced for the CBC Docs series Keep Calm and Decolonize. The series tasks five filmmakers—Obomsawin, Amanda Strong, Yung Chang, Howie Shia, and John Greyson—with expanding our horizons and perspectives on Canadian identities that exist beyond the settler/colonial lense.