What’s Up, Doc? Weekly Round-Up
By Pat Mullen
Is there trouble in Oscarland? The recent omission of Brett Morgen’s Jane from the Best Documentary category is one for the books. Adam Benzine digs into the possible explanations for the doc branch’s decision to favour five other films over the most widely-lauded contender. “So why did AMPAS reject it?” asks Benzine at The Hollywood Reporter. “The most credible answer, parsed from recent conversations with doc branch members, is simply that if it had been nominated, it likely would have won.” Benzine, a recent Oscar nominee for the short doc Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, attributes the Jane snub to changes in the voting process and frustration within the doc branch that the overall membership of the Academy inevitably picks the sexier, more easygoing title over hard-hitting documentary with the loss of win of 20 Feet from Stardom over The Act of Killing as one of several examples. (On the other hand, I’d argue the unpopular opinion that Stardom, even if it’s more conventional, won simply because it’s the better film.)
There is one twist to leaving Jane out of the running and missing a chance to acknowledge a movie within a movement. Benzine adds, “But in turning their backs on the Goodall portrait, AMPAS members have ironically missed out on a chance to cover perhaps the most urgent issue of the moment: the battle for female equality and empowerment.” There’s a lot to unpack here in a very interested read on the snub of the year. Why do you think the voters passed over Jane? Read more about Jane in Marc Glassman’s interview with Brett Morgen.
While Jane missed out with The Academy, Oscar voters showed more favour to Yance Ford’s powerful study of his brother’s murder, Strong Island. Tre’vell Anderson at the LA Times talks with Ford about this searing indictment of a flawed judicial system, on breaking barriers as the first transgender filmmaker to be nominated for an Oscar, and using his family’s grief to attack the bigger picture. One intriguing point of the conversation is the director’s explanation on the choice to refrain from using white interview subjects within the film that gives voice to America’s problem of racialized violence. “And what dawned on me was that there was not enough anger in the movie and that I had kept it focused on my mom’s grief because, in some sense, I was afraid to be — and let the characters be — angry,” Ford said speaking with Anderson. “And not because I’m afraid of my own anger, but because I didn’t accept at the time that my brother’s murder was also something that happened to me.”
Ford’s been busy on the awards circuit and is popping up in trades and articles everywhere. This coverage helps Strong Island expand the conversation on several fronts, including how the Netflix distributed documentary is helping to change the game for the ways that audiences access and consume documentaries. “Theatres that play movies like mine aren’t located in neighbourhoods like the one I grew up in. People can’t afford a $20 movie ticket,” says Ford in an engaging interview with Ben Dalton at Screen Daily. “Most people that I know have one friend with a Netflix account, and seven profiles. There’s a level of economic levelling that Netflix achieves that isn’t achievable any other way.” Check back tomorrow for more on Strong Island with our picks for which docs will win and should win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
Over at The Guardian, Charlie Phillips gives the skinny on short docs. What these docs lack in running time they make up for in innovation and substance, and are readily accessible as more news outlets and digital platforms expand the opportunities for creation and consumption. “These films aren’t short because their makers are too inexperienced to be trusted with a longer film, or because viewers will only watch short films online,” writes Phillips. “They’re short because it’s the ideal length for the stories being told, and they’re lean, with no padding out to fill an arbitrary broadcast slot. Documentary shorts are thriving with viewers, arguably more so than longer documentaries. Festivals are starting to increase the numbers they show. These small jewels deserve more attention from critics, rather than being seen as a training ground for the longer form.” Catch up on some great short docs in our rundown of the Oscar-nominated short docs.
A refined palette can tell the difference between Fuzion and a heavenly vintage, but even the best documentary theatre or festival yields some vinegar now and then. Lettie Teague at The Wall Street Journal shares a wine tasting party rundown of grape docs. Teague looks at wine docs such as Somm, Sour Grapes, and upcoming Three Days of Glory and swishes them around her mouth to taste the flavours and, in some cases, body and complexity. “Watching movies all week sounded like fun. Watching a week’s worth of wine documentaries: not so much,” writes Teague, “And yet the recent rush of documentaries focusing on wine shows no sign of abating. I decided it was time to determine which of the current and upcoming releases are worth 90 minutes of an oenophile’s (or cinephile’s) attention.” Read the POV review of Sour Grapes here.
Ruth Beckermann’s The Waldheim Waltz is this year’s big documentary winner at the Berlin Film Festival having scooped the Glashütte Original Documentary Award. Jay Weissberg at Variety gives this archival film a rave review as he reflects upon Beckermann’s powerful and urgent study of Nazi white-washing that speaks to today’s political climate. “Beckermann (The Dreamed Ones) counts down the days leading to the election, ticking off each one as new revelations come to light,” writes Weissberg. “Most devastating is footage from a highly unusual U.S. Congressional hearing looking into the allegations, during which Rep. Tom Lantos questions Waldheim’s New York-based son Gerhard, refusing to tolerate any obfuscation or unsupportable denials. Less skilled directors would have edited the sequence down, but in the style of the best legal dramas, Beckermann lets it all play out to devastating effectiveness. Earlier in her narration, she addresses the dilemma of all activist filmmakers who wonder when to pick up the protest banner instead of the movie camera; with great satisfaction to all, she manages both.” Maybe one to see in a future Hot Docs announcement?
The response isn’t quite so good for Berlin’s biggest winner, Adina Pintilie’s sexual intimacy film Touch Me Not, which scored the festival’s coveted Golden Bear. Peter Bradshaw savages the hybrid film over at The Guardian and writes how its win exposes Berlin’s identity crisis. “This is a quasi-fictional documentary essay about sexuality, which deluged me in a tidal wave of depression at how embarrassingly awful it was, at its mediocrity, its humourless self-regard, its fatuous and shallow approach to its ostensible theme of intimacy, and the clumsy way all this was sneakily elided with Euro-hardcore cliches about BDSM, alternative sexualities, fetishism and exhibitionism,” writes Bradshaw. The critics goes on to say that the success of Touch Me Not over films that were stronger and drew more acclaim “is a very Berlin experience.” He adds, “It is often an exasperatingly featureless festival that has terrific films hidden in its programme, films which are there to be discovered, by and large not in its official competition. It is a festival that somehow manages to promote the dullest and most valueless films in its lineup, leaving the good stuff to be revealed almost by accident.” TIFF’s patchwork quilt doesn’t seem so bad by comparison!
Film festivals are great places to score some celebrity selfies (except at Cannes where they’re a non-non) and the overabundance of poorly-lit, awkwardly framed, and multi-chinned A-listers devalues the art of the celebrity portrait. Sabrina Maddeux at The National Post dives into the history of celebrity photography and looks at the careers of star shutterbugs such as Andy Warhol and Annie Leibovitz to see how the value of these images changes in the age of iPhones and Instagram. “But as indicative and introspective as they can be of a changing culture, celebrity portraits aren’t generally fawned over by art students or analyzed by critics,” writes Maddeux. “Their natural homes aren’t prestigious art fairs or museums, but rather glossy magazines and coffee table books. They are a product of pop culture – or, as some would derisively say, ‘low culture.’ Nevertheless, Leibovitz is a master in extracting power and meaning from the superficial, and has been greatly recognized for it.” Fans interested in celebrity culture can catch the upcoming Cecil Beaton doc Love, Cecil when it opens next month!
Short doc of the week:
This week’s short spotlight is a long overdue shout-out to Jay Cheel’s Twisted. Cheel (How to Build a Time Machine) chronicles the Canadian urban legend of a drive-in movie theatre that was hit by a twister while showing the Bill Paxton/Helen Hunt cheese fest Twister. The doc draws some wild interviews from survivors of the incident and recall shards of movie screen flying around the parking lot like pieces of Aunt Meg’s house terrorizing the storm chasers of the Hollywood movie. The craziest part of the story, however? It may not have happened at all!