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Documentary Feature, More Accessible and Necessary Than Ever

My readers and friends know that I have a very predictable pattern when it comes to Oscar. I like to start the Oscar year off really slow, mostly due to a complete burn out out at the end of the previous season. The summer of 2016 I think I only managed to see two movies in the theater. Maybe 3. As my peers make their way to film festivals all over the globe throughout the year, I sit at home wishing I was with them while also taking great joy in procrastination. Somewhere around October I come out of Oscar hibernation and by late December all the way to Oscar I am in full swing. I usually don’t make it around to the documentaries until after the nominations are announced, allowing the Academy’s picks to determine the ones I will see, but this year was a bit different.

I feel as if documentaries have had an earlier, stronger, more important presence this season. “Weiner” became a must see well before it was snubbed by the Academy as it became intertwined, post release, with a never ending email scandal as part of our most recent Presidential race. When we learned that Ava DuVernay had quietly made a documentary that was going to be the first doc to open the New York Film Festival and then stream for anyone with a Netflix subscription a week later, documentary film suddenly had a new type of accessibility. And when a little 7 plus hour film called “OJ: Made in America” screened at Sundance, and later on ESPN and ABC, all bets for the medium and its journey to an audience were off.

There has been so much discussion about whether or not “OJ: Made in America” is television or film. I watched “OJ: Made in America” on my computer at the ESPN website, lying in bed with a cold. I would have seen it in the theater in a heartbeat had I had the opportunity. Same with all of these films. Does that take away from the fact that it is a movie? Not for me. I watched “13th” on my television with Netflix, while I saw “I Am Not Your Negro,” “Life, Animated” and “Fire at Sea” on my iPad. This is the reality of watching documentary features today. The “rules” are changing.

The way we discuss films in competition and particularly in this category is always a bit tricky, or at least it is for me. I wrote a piece a few years ago for this website compartmentalizing documentary feature into the important v/s the entertaining. “Life Animated” certainly stands out from the rest of the nominees this year as a piece of entertainment, but to label it only in that way is not fair. Putting a face on autism is different from shedding a spotlight on back up singers. No offense to the fantastically enjoyable “20 Feet From Stardom.”

When I spoke to director Roger Ross Williams, he gave me so much insight about the process of making the film. Using Ron Suskind’s book as a starting point, Williams tells the story of Ron’s son, Owen, “a young man who was unable to speak as a child until he and his family discovered a unique way to communicate by immersing themselves in the world of classic Disney animated films.” Williams has known the Suskind family for years which gave everyone involved a heightened level of trust. At one point in the film, Owen is left alone in his new home. Williams was there with him for a while, but eventually left, leaving only Owen and cinematographer Tom Bergmann. Watching the film, this scene is remarkable. It is as if Bergmann and the camera aren’t even there. There are many artistic gifts in this film, including the recreation of Owen’s “Land of the Lost Sidekicks,” told through original animation, but this level of intimacy is what makes Williams’s film so touching.

My favorite of the bunch is probably “Fire at Sea.” It is an Italian documentary that defies the usual tropes of documentary. It is incredibly observational, very deliberate in pace, and highly artistic in its approach. One of many refugee stories nominated for Oscars this year, director Gianfranco Rosi focuses on the story of a young boy who lives on Lampedusa, an island that has become a landing spot for migrants from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Unlike in America, the question of whether or not these people should be helped or allowed into their country is a complete non issue. The horrors of what these human beings go through is certainly shown on screen but in a very matter of fact, non manipulative manner, while paralleled with the every day life of the people of the island.

When I first started watching Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America,” realizing the amount of time that would be spent on his college football years, I couldn’t imagine connecting to those elements in his life, wondering when we would get to the story of Nicole Brown’s murder. I couldn’t quite grasp the depths of where Edelman would go in telling this story after all these years. The seeds of understanding of what lead OJ to believe and say “I’m not white, I’m OJ,” the necessity on the behalf of the defense team to fabricate a heritage of sorts and the gravity of the allowance by Judge Ito, and how half the country could support him well beyond the verdict (something hard to believe now, but easier to understand then) are all planted within that first hour and a half. And for me, this was a necessity, as the OJ I knew at 17 years old when the verdict was announced was the actor in “Naked Gun.”

Where “OJ: Made in America” really allows its themes and interview subjects, juxtaposed with unseen footage to be the star, “13th” takes a slightly different approach. “13th,” wears its craft on its sleeve. Once I was able to look past certain cinematography elements of “13th” and hear the story DuVernay was telling, the film really took flight. Never seeming to remain on a shot/frame for more than a few seconds, DuVernay crafts a film that cannot be ignored. There is a pace that begins at 60 mph and steadily accelerates to a blistering conclusion.

We begin with an explanation of the 13th amendment which outlawed slavery, but with a catch. DuVernay shines light on how slavery was and is perpetuated by mass incarceration, with beginnings in the Nixon White House and the war on drugs. It was a political means to deal with the White House’s two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities” said John Ehrlichman, one of Nixon’s advisors. “13th”‘s strength is not only in its subject matter but even more so in DuVernay’s ability to get people from “both sides of the aisle” on camera, specifically Newt Gingrich, speaking on the subject more honestly than he might ever will again.

“I Am Not Your Negro” takes things even farther, asking blistering, unflinching questions about race relations. Directed by Raoul Peck, the film is based on the writings of an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, a poet, novelist, essayist, and social critic, exploring racism through the reminiscence of slain activists, Medger Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film is told through Baldwin’s own critical words, showing quite bluntly how far our country has yet to go. This film demands us to ask questions of ourselves, some of which are directly pointed at Hollywood.

It means something that the Academy nominated this film and others this year. But that something has yet to be defined by one year’s group of nominations. Something is certainly happening out there in the world of film, but remember, the films that were nominated this year were not simply a response to #oscarsowhite. May of these have been in production for years. I can’t wait to see the questions that are asked by documentarians in the years to come. We need them more than ever.