Documentary Feature: the important v/s the entertaining


By Brian Whisenant

It has been a couple of years since I have written about the Documentary Feature category. Last year it was because I didn’t see “Undefeated” until the very morning of the Academy Awards. I can remember quite clearly coming down the escalator of the monstrous AMC 42nd St in Manhattan last Oscar morning and texting my friend Brett that I had seen the winner for Best Documentary…and just in time. And I was right. “If a Tree Falls” was in my top 10 films of the year…so it was always in the back of my mind to win…even if, deep down I actually didn’t think it had a chance. I think “Pina” was the film most people thought would win. And I had been saying “Paradise Lost 3″ was the one.

Needless to say…it was a good thing I didn’t post that piece without seeing all of the nominees. I very much missed talking about it because it is such a very interesting category for many reasons. And pretty much the same reasons every year. We always have a series of frontrunners (this year “Central Park Five,” “Mea Maxima Culpa,” and “West of Memphis”) that are often left off the final list to a great deal of uproar (me included! When I finally saw “West of Memphis” I got all up in arms on Twitter about its snub!). Then after I get over my “anger” and actually watch the Academy’s choices I am always pleasantly surprised, often finding them better than the frontrunners I felt so strongly about.

Almost immediately after viewing the films…especially when thinking/writing about them in terms of Oscar I seem to place them in one of two categories. The important docs and the entertaining ones. (Sometimes there is the third “interesting” category as well…maybe say a doc about the life of a bear. Maybe not important or entertaining…but interesting. Of course these types don’t usually get nominated for Oscar–instead ending up at an Imax theatre in an amusement park during the off season.) After I mentally place each film into one of these categories I start to question if the important ones are actually good films. Have I been so strongly affected by the message that I don’t notice that a certain film isn’t great filmmaking? Has the director been innovative in his/her approach to the storytelling or is it just more of the same old, same old? Talking heads, sit down interviews or something else unoriginal yet still affective. If that’s the case does it even matter? Sometimes I find that the innovation can have a negative impact. I found “Countdown to Zero,” for example, less compelling than, say, “Waste Land,” both directed by Oscar nominee (for the latter) Lucy Walker. I felt “Waste Land” simply told a story by documenting the action that unfolded. “Countdown to Zero” had a compelling story to tell…it just did it with a little too much glitz and pizazz for my taste.

This year we get a varied spectrum of films…although most fall into the “important” vein. “The Gatekeepers,” for example uses an incredible technique to show us scenes from the past that is the perfect amount of “interesting device” to go along with the compelling information. In one particular scene, Dror Moreh (the director of the film) recreates an event where two terrorists are taken by Israeli forces and controversially killed. With no footage existing he relied on still photos and an unusual means of dramatization. When I spoke to Moreh he described how he did this.

“I knew that I would have some of the stories that will have just still photos…I needed to develop a technique which nobody has done before which is basically taking photos and create the scene, the terrain of where it happened, in the computer based on those photos. And then after creating the whole scene-the environment, put the virtual camera in a “documentary way” running in the virtual terrain. He runs there through one still photo to another still photo….to create a more cinematic experience. ”

And the whole time expounding on a subject (the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) in a new way by giving us interviews with multiple heads of the Shin Bet (Israel’s version of the CIA) who have never spoken on record before.

Similar to “The Gatekeepers” (at least in terms of subject) is “5 Broken Cameras,” a film which didn’t quite resonate with me at first (which was the catalyst for the previously mentioned “West of Memphis” twitter rant). I had already started to rethink my opinion of the film when I heard Kris Tapley of In Contention say that it was his favorite of the nominees. But it was Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation who helped me understand and appreciate the doc a bit more. When interviewing film critic Bob Mondello about the docs he questioned the film’s “amateuristic” quality. It wasn’t Bob’s answer, but the question itself that nailed why I didn’t, at first, appreciate the film. I realized the amateur aspect was partially what makes the film special. This was shot and co directed by a man (Emad Burnat) who wasn’t a professional filmmaker, but simply someone who needing to capture what was happening in his homeland. (He did have a a more experienced co-director, sure…but I digress.) And never giving up…even as his cameras were destroyed, he lost a close friend and eventually alienated his wife, who begged him to stop.

Two films are really gaining momentum right now. First is “The Gatekeepers” and second is “The Invisible War.” I have felt since seeing “The Gatekeepers” (the first of the nominees that I saw) that it was a formidable contender to win the Oscar. And now with a recent theatrical release it is gaining more traction. Then you have “The Invisible War,” which exposes the cover up of sexual abuse (mostly of women) in the military. This seems like the type of film that would be near the end of a voter’s screener pile, which means Academy members might be watching it now. And hopefully just in time to coincide with the buzz. It is also a film that could bring about much needed change, and although it is a very tough subject to hear about…one that leaves you very angry you also really care about victims. It is truly heartbreaking when one of the women reminds us that she (and the other abused women) truly wanted to serve her country and how that idealism has been lost. It is also the only doc to be featured (I think!) on “Katie,” Katie Couric’s new talk show. We used to talk a lot about the Oprah effect. Perhaps we will now have a Katie effect as well. I have a feeling the buzz for “The Invisible War” might be a little too late. But let’s have a little perspective. This is an award. The buzz for the film will hopefully generate real change, which is a little more important, don’t you think?

Before seeing “How to Survive a Plague”…and there really is no way to say this without seeming insensitive…but alas…I wondered why we needed a new story about the early stages of the AIDS epidemic when (to use an overused phrase) it is no longer a death sentence.

Once I saw the film (twice) I was incredibly moved. One major aspect that makes the film particularly special is the amazing archival footage found and used from the height and in the heart of the epidemic, whether it was at protests, of political speeches, news programs, or simply in hospitals and homes. The footage tells the story. And the central story is how activists from Act Up (a group that splintered off from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in order to take a more active approach) changed the way the FDA approves AIDS/HIV related drugs. Days after seeing the film it stayed with me, but I continued to wonder: why this movie right now? Perhaps it was to show a younger generation who might have become a bit too complacent in the wake of the miracle drugs what it took to get where we are today. To show what people can really accomplish even when all hope seems lost. When I spoke to David France, the film’s director, he helped me understand that it was even bigger than that.

“I think there is something kind of built in, in our psychology that keeps us from looking back at difficult and trying times right away, and we wait…before feeling confident. And looking back over our shoulders will produce a new understanding of what we had been through and look at that history with different eyes.”

France had been a print reporter during the epidemic, and in the late 90s he began doing recordings and writing of that time, retrospectively. He soon began to think it was time to “take apart those years and find what the lessons are…to find the legacy of AIDS. Where it left us, what it gave us, and not just what it took away from us.”

The AIDS epidemic, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (times 2), and sexual abuse in the military. Those clearly go into the “Important” file. That leaves one film to take the entertainment slot–our supposed front runner, “Searching for Sugar Man.” It tells the story of Rodriguez, a musician/singer who bombed as a recording artist in the US. Before becoming a sensation as big as the Beatles in South Africa he supposedly committed suicide on stage during a disappointing concert performance by lighting himself on fire (among other wild rumors). To me, it’s kind of like this year’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” This film is the one all the cool kids have seen or at least know about. I was at a friend’s apartment the other day and was chatting with his roommate about the fact that I wrote about the Oscars, which led to me saying I was working on a Documentary Feature piece. Now…this guy is a cool cat…believe me. You better believe he not only had seen Sugar Man, but was able to, within seconds, pull up and play the very addictive “Sugar Man” on his ipod. A bit of background music for our doc discussion.

Going into the film I wondered if it would live up to the hype. When I first tried to watch it I couldn’t really get into it, so I decided to watch it later. I just didn’t think it was for me. I eventually started it over and this time, by the end I was completely invested in the story and in tears. Tears of joy (hence the entertainment factor!). I had assumed the film was simply going to be about the mystery of what happened to Rodriguez and end with something/someone being found. The search for what happened to him ends much earlier in the film than I expected which allows it to become a story about what it means to be an artist and the meaning of success. It also is not only a story of “what if’s,” but also second chances.

So, there you go. 5 films. But only one eventual winner. There are a few things to think about when predicting the Documentary Feature win. I used to think that by simply seeing all of the films and putting my Oscar voter cap on that I could correctly predict the thing. And this would work about 75% of the time. This year things are a little different now that the entire Academy can vote without having to prove they saw all five films by signing in at a theatrical screening. It is now on the honor system with all the members receiving screeners (which, according to Anne Thompson of Thompson on Hollywood, some only received last week!). We can’t know whether or not they have actually seen the films before voting. Now, I have no proof of this and really have no reason to think it other than the fact that everyone else seems to bring up this possibility. As the ever-optimist, I like to think the Academy takes their job seriously and most will try to watch them all. That being said, some might choose not to vote on that category if they haven’t seen everything. And some will probably vote having only seen a couple. So, you have to wonder which ones they will see first, and on down the line.

If all of the films are good (as I pretty much believe this year) how do they determine the winner? Importance or entertainment? Is their choice simply the one that triggers the most emotion, whether that is anger or joy? I don’t want to suggest that “Searching For Sugar Man” is slight by not considering it important or calling it entertaining. But it does seem to stand alone amongst the list of five. The final question is, will that unique descriptor end up in its favor on Oscar night?

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  1. February 16, 2013

    The year’s two finest documentary features this year were indeed -as you rightly note with exasperation- MEA MAXIMA CULPA and THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE. I though WEST OF MEMPHIS though well done went over familiar territory.

    Excellent analysis here. I suppose SUGAR MAN will triumph on Oscar night.

  2. kasper
    February 16, 2013

    Great piece! I’m taking a break from the big categories right now and have been watching the Docs; still have to see 5 Broken Cameras though. But of the four I’ve already seen, there’s no clunker among them. Maybe I’d like to see How to Survive a Plague win, but would be okay for the others. It should be required watching for young gays because, like you said, there’s a bit of complacency about safe sex, but also when it comes to collective action for change.

  3. February 16, 2013

    I don’t think I’ve never seen a picture of so many white men before at AD.


  4. Edkargir
    February 16, 2013

    Gatekeepers is opening in Cambridge on. March 1.i have seen the other 4 nominees and how to survive a plague was on my top 10 list ahead of Argo. So I hope iit wins but I think sugar men might win.

  5. February 16, 2013

    Yes, Kasper, every young gay man should definitely see “Plague.” I have met quite a few people the past few years who almost always have unprotected sex. It is very unfortunate.

    I am pretty sure I would be happy if any of them won. Maybe a little less happy if “5 Broken Cameras” won.

    “The Gatekeepers” has it all for me though. So that’s the one I’m rooting for.

  6. February 16, 2013

    Fantastic piece, Brian!

    You hit the nail on the head when you described “Sugar Man” as being about artistry and redefining success. It made such an impact on me in that regard. It’s why I think the Academy will respond to it.

    While the subject matter of both “Gatekeepers” and “Cameras” (especially when combined as companion pieces of sorts) is vital and the films are extremely informative, the former leans too much toward the talking head approach and the latter’s amateur auteur didn’t win me over. His tenacity of continuing to film is honorable, but I don’t feel that’s a qualifier of being the best.

    Meanwhile, “Plague” has a similar use of original/non professional footage, but the way that it is edited together gives the film a stronger shape.

    I think “Invisible War” is incredible and has already sparked change in the system. It’s informative, enthralling and angering. It was the first of the five I saw and stayed at the top of my list until I saw “Sugar Man,” which is just so inspiring and personal to me.

  7. rufussondheim
    February 16, 2013

    How to Survive a Plague is about so much more than the early stages of the AIDS epidemic. It’s about a group of people told to sit down and shut up who refused to sit down and shut up. This film is a manual for those who refuse to be complacent and demand to be in control of their fates. This film instructs on how to challenge authority when all hope seems lost.

    It’s a remarkable film that all should see, this is not about AIDS, it’s the story of abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights. It’s about people fighting when no one would fight for them.

  8. Free
    February 17, 2013

    Seen all of these except for THE GATEKEEPERS, and I’d rank them like so:

    1. The Invisible War

    2. Searching for Sugar Man

    3. 5 Broken Cameras

    4. How To Survive A Plague

    While SUGAR MAN is second, this actually isn’t close at all, honestly. I thought INVISIBLE WAR was far and away the best of the four I saw by a long shot. It’s also the most frustrating documentary I’ve ever seen. It marks one of the few times I immediately went to the website after it was over and tried to help as best I could.

    SUGAR MAN is okay, but I honestly don’t see why it keeps cleaning house. Perhaps my issue lies with the fact that the trailer pretty much gave away the movie. 5 BROKEN CAMERAS is fine. Nothing too spectacular, in my opinion, but definitely watchable. HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE kind of disappointed me. It was the doc I was most excited to see, and it just didn’t live up to the hype.

    Personally, I thought the un-nominated QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY and JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI were great films that could have easily been nominated.

    Nothing, however, came close to THE IMPOSTER for me. I was mesmerized from the start. It’s out on DVD now. See it if you haven’t yet.

    Sasha, I’ve heard several others complain about WEST OF MEMPHIS failing to score a bid, but after seeing PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY first, I can’t say I’m in that group. So much of what we see in WoM was in PL3, which I thought handled the same material better (and in less time!). I have yet to see UNDEFEATED (in my Netflix queue), but I suspect SENNA will still be the best doc I saw from 2011 after I finally watch it. That’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen, and I care not one shit about professional motor-racing.

    Despite what I preferred, however, the writing’s on the wall with this one: Sugar Man wins in a walk.

  9. February 17, 2013

    I have to say in terms of The Gatekeepers, that the subject matter, the interesting 3D techniques and who the talking heads were overcame the fact that it was a talking head doc.

    It is hard for me to explain without seeing both again…but to me West of Memphis, although the same subject seemed very different than the Paradise Lost movies. The inclusion of the boys. The manner of storytelling…the pacing. It spoke to me.

  10. José R. Ortega
    February 17, 2013

    What a wonderful job you’ve done, and what a marvelous piece you have write.

    I often believe that this should be consider as one of the big categories at the Oscars, and tend to be sad by the fact that it would never ever happen. While at the US it is (I guess) easier to watch these nominees in theaters, we outside the States can never do so.

    Still, there are a lot of documentaries we can actually watch, mainly thanks to the Film Festivals. Here I’d like to show my appreciation to “Ambulante”, here in Mexico, because they do such a great efford to promote documentaries and show them to everybody at public spaces, always for free.

    This “Ambulante” doc festival is promoted by many people, lead by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna (the stars of “Y Tu Mamá También”) both documentarists themselves.

    Thanks to them I’ve been able to watch three of the nominees: “Searching for Sugar Man”, “The Gatekeepers” and “How to Survive a Plague”, also the “snubbed” “Ai Weiwei – Never Sorry”, “Queen of Versailles” or “The House I Live In”.

    Out of the three I’ve seem (all amazing) the one that stick with me was Sugar Man, I concur, it is among the “entertaining” bunch, but it is a perfect documentary, because of the treatment of the story, the filmmaking and the message of hope, which isn’t always lost: your life and work can mean something to someone, even if you never know about it. Success isn’t always the goal, many artist didn’t get recognition until they were dead, so it is such a great story to show, to let people know Rodriguez did get it in the end, and encourage artist to continue with their dreams and their work. This film is about poetic justice.

    And would it sound a bit lame to say that I also have the music of Rodriguez in my iPod? Not only that, but the whole Soundtrack on CD.

    Anyway, thanks for the piece you wrote. Nice job!

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