Friday, February 6, 2015

One Category at a Time: Documentary

Since the Academy opened up voting in Best Documentary Feature to the entire membership two years ago, the results of that change have been immediately transparent. In the past, when only the small turnout of members at official screenings could cast a ballot, the winning documentary would usually be one that tackles a "serious" subject. But with the first two winners under this new regime being relatively lightweight music docs (Searching for Sugar Man and 20 Feet from Stardom), it seems to suggest that this category will now always lean the way of populist crowdpleasers so long as every Academy member has a say.

Of course, there's no guarantee that such an audience hit is going to be nominated every single year, just as there's no guarantee that the buzziest title will be one dealing with feathery subject matter. You need look no further than this year's frontrunner for proof that doc-lovers can still flock to movies that bill themselves as Important with a capital 'I'.
Laura Poitras' Citizenfour is that frontrunner, having raked in more at the specialty box office in 2014 than any of its non-fiction competition. The film may not be particularly impressive in its construction or style, but the content has clearly got people talking. It chronicles the NSA surveillance leaks from the very hotel room where Edward Snowden began blowing that whistle, making Poitras' footage something of a journalistic scoop that fell right into her lap (Snowden specifically sought her out to help break the story). Of course, that story may be over a year old at this point, but the political reverberations thereof are obviously still ringing loud and clear to critics and audiences alike. Whether or not most voters actually watch every Academy-issued DVD of the five feature length doc nominees is still a mystery, but I think it's safe to assume that not all of them do. That means high profile and widely discussed films like this one have a definite advantage when it comes to inching closer to the top of that screener pile.

All the same, the level of exposure of some documentaries cannot be gauged in box office receipts. Such is the case of Orlando von Einsiedel's Virunga, a Netflix original that could certainly pull some support if enough Academy members bother to stream it (first month's free, folks, and totally worth it just to see this terrific film). It paints a complex, multi-angled picture of the Congo's ecologically significant national park, which is beset by a number of geopolitical and socio-economical challenges to its continued preservation. To say it will appeal to eco-conscious viewers is to undersell the movie, which could in fact carry much broader appeal by virtue of its riveting construction and emotional involvement
(I dare you to not grow attached to those orphaned mountain gorillas!).
The Citizenfour juggernaut may have already picked up too much momentum to be stopped now, but if there's a spoiler lurking, my bet is it's this one.
Those first two contenders certainly capture a certain degree of zeitgeist with their sobering depictions of the world we currently inhabit, but stories that are decades old can prove just as illuminating. Rory Kennedy's Last Days in Vietnam is a masterful collage of footage, photos and firsthand accounts that brilliantly contextualizes the U.S.A's initially hesitant and then suddenly panicked withdrawal from Saigon, with North Vietnam's implacable communist army poised to take the city. It wisely focuses on the human element of those chaotic final days rather than get too bogged down in the situation's messy politics, and that can only help broaden its appeal. But historical docs have not had much success winning Oscars in recent years, let alone ones about this uncomfortable chapter of American history.

So any voter looking for something a little less heavy and a little more palatable have a couple of options left, and both of them just so happen to be character studies about photographers.

In Finding Vivian Maier, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel explore the life and work of a mid-western nanny who was secretly a brilliant street photographer. Only thing is that Vivian Maier is deceased, so everything we learn about her had to be pieced together from her thousands of photos and by tracking down people who knew her. It's an interesting form of posthumous biography, although it occasionally smacks of self-promotion -- Maloof, as discoverer and curator of the photo exhibits now touring the world, features as prominently in the movie as Maier herself. But if you want to draw similarities between the category's most recent two winners and the current slate of nominees, this is the one that fits the mold, telling the tale of an artist who would remain unrecognized or forgotten were it not for the documentarian's prying cameras.
The other portrait of an artist is Wim Wenders and Juliano Saldago's The Salt of the Earth, which examines the career of photojournalist Sebastaio Saldago, Juliano's father. While Wenders may be known to most cinephiles as the helmer of classic arthouse staples Paris Texas and The Wings of Desire, he's experienced much more awards success this century for his non-fiction efforts. This is his third nomination in the category to date, making it clear that the documentary branch truly admires the creative visual flare he uses to evoke his real-life subjects on camera. But when it comes to winning, this is one Oscar category in which sheer formal artistry always takes a back seat to subject matter.

Will win: Citizenfour
Runner-up: Virunga

Should win: Virunga
Should have been nominated: The Overnighters

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