What’s Up, Doc? Doc Talk for Nov. 23

He Named Me Malala
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

By Pat Mullen

What’s up, doc? Award season, that’s what. Yes, this week’s round-up tastes like awards chatter, which has been strong on the web since the Academy’s documentary branch recently turned in ballots for the documentary feature shortlist. (Voting closed Friday.) The shortlist of fifteen documentary features will be announced in early December, but Gold Derby susses out a list of fifteen films that feel like frontrunners. Amy, He Named Me Malala, The Look of Silence, What Happened Miss Simone?, and Where to Invade Next all appear in the odds-makers’ favour. The doc race is notoriously hard to predict, though, so December may hold some surprises!

The Hollywood Reporter, meanwhile, writes that many of the films leading this year’s Oscar race are breaking all the rules. Prominent docs in 2015 buck the trend of the relatively conservative subjects that hold the Oscar ranks prior to the creation of a unique branch for documentary voters. Many of this year’s top docs defy convention with creative licence (animation in He Named Me Malala), actors portraying subjects in voiceover (Best of Enemies, Janis: Little Girl Blue), dramatic re-enactments (What Happened, Miss Simone?) and other unconventional choices. (PS: There’s a great article about hybrid documentaries in the upcoming issue of POV, so subscribe today!)

One film that seems to accumulate strong notices as the season continues is Cartel Land, directed by Matthew Heineman, which won prizes for Best Director and Best Cinematography at Sundance earlier this year. The film receives a passionate push of support from Doc Soup, POV’s Documentary Blog at PBS. (No relation.) This great read should at least inspire an iTunes rental.

Variety adds some variety to Oscar coverage by tackling all ten of the shortlisted documentary short films. The list includes Canadian films Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (“a strong contender”) and My Enemy, My Brother (“emotional, if brief”). The documentary shorts are usually among the hard-to-find films, so this cheat sheet is valuable for anyone looking for a leg-up in their office Oscar pool.

The International Documentary Association offers a chat with filmmaker Gordon Quinn, who is set to receive the IDA’s Career Achievement Award on December 5 in recognition for five decades of superior filmmaker. Quinn, whose credits include Hoop Dreams and Home for Life, provides some words of wisdom for fellow filmmakers. His advice includes entering a situation with an open mind and being aware of the democratic power of documentary and harnessing it to its full potential. (Read more about Quinn and Kartemquin Films in this POV feature by Pepita Ferrari.)

Looking outside the awards chatter, there’s lots of doc talk worth noting. For example, the BBC reports that International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam recently pulled a documentary about Eagles of Death Metal from its line-up. Eagles of Death Metal is the band whose concert in Paris found itself at the centre of ISIS’s recent attacks in the city. The BBC speculates that the film “was pulled because the timing felt inappropriate.” IDFA is currently in full swing with a great slate of programming, including a Top 10 from Errol Morris.

The war for healthy eating has a sweet ally in the Canadian film Sugar Coated by Michèle Hozer, and the film adds a new weapon to its arsenal with the launch of “One Sweet App.” “One Sweet App,” created by Natalie Bibeau whose work on Sugar Coated inspired the application, provides a database with which consumers may learn the levels of sugar in the foods the purchase at the grocery store. Simply scan a barcode to reveal the empty calories hiding within sugary nom-noms. The app is available for iPhones and iPads. (This writer has a handy Samsung Galaxy, so if any readers have an iThing and want to explore the app, please give us your report in the comments!)

Finally, “One Sweet App” shows the evolution of documentary in the age of digital media. Interactive documentaries are becoming more prominent, and the MIT Interactive Documentary Lab tackles the convergence of mediums and practices in the new report “Mapping the Intersection of Two Cultures: Interactive Documentary and Digital Journalism.” The 114-page report, which readers may download here in PDF form, concludes that digital journalism is in a healthy state as interactive documentaries allow journalists to enhance their reports, engage readers, and extend their reach. (Check the upcoming issue of POV for a passionate rebuttal to this article in favour of a new mode for measuring the success and reach of interactive documentaries.)

Are there any good documentary reads that you recommend this week?