Sunday, February 21, 2016

Countdown to the Oscars: Best Documentary

Winter on Fire is among this year's five excellent nominees for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards.

Welcome to Last Cinema Standing’s Countdown to the Oscars, our daily look at this year’s Academy Awards race. Be sure to check back every day this month for analysis of each of the Academy’s 24 categories.

Best Documentary

The nominees are:

Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire

Some things the Academy really likes its documentaries to be about: war, the environment, and entertainment figures. There are no environmental films nominated this year – at least, not in the Best Documentary category – but the Academy doubled down on its other two favorite subjects with three war films and two entertainment films.

With each of the five nominees this year playing firmly within the Academy’s wheelhouse, determining the likely winner could be as easy as looking at the box-office receipts. Four of the last five documentary winners were the highest-grossing nominees in their respective years. The only one that was not, Undefeated in 2011, was the second-highest grossing.

If we follow the money this year, that leaves only one option, director Asif Kapadia’s Amy. The Amy Winehouse film earned $8.4 million in theaters, positively blockbuster numbers by documentary standards. Things are complicated a bit by the fact that two of these nominees debuted on Netflix, but while the streaming company has been good at getting the nomination, it has not yet delivered a win. After the Beasts of No Nation shutout this year, it seems fair to say the Academy at large is still reticent to embrace streaming platforms. So, if money talks as it often does in the documentary category, this year, it is screaming Amy.

Amy (directed by Asif Kapadia) – As presented by this film, Winehouse’s tragic life is a cautionary tale but not in the way we might initially think. This is not a classic perils-of-fame doc, though it is possible to read it that way as we watch Winehouse’s downward spiral into depression and addiction. Instead, the true subject of the film only becomes clear once Kapadia turns his lens on the lenses, so to speak, on the members of the press who hounded Winehouse day and night.

The film argues that though Winehouse was a troubled young woman, prone to various forms of self-harm, her downfall ultimately was the result of the intense media scrutiny under which she lived. Of course, a film of this subject matter does not exist in a vacuum, and sadly, Winehouse’s experience in the spotlight is more the rule than the exception. If anyone will understand and relate to that, it will be the members of the Academy, people much closer to this material than the rest of us.

Working in its favor as well is that Amy also plays like a love letter to art and artists – another favorite topic of the Academy’s, be it fiction or non-fiction. The footage we see of Winehouse is of a gifted songwriter and brilliant performer who loved to create. The strongest moments in the film are those when Kapadia just allows Winehouse to perform for the camera – and us. The film absolutely has an agenda in its portrayal of the tabloid press, but in its quietest, most intimate moments, it also proves to be a genuinely moving human document.

Cartel Land (directed by Matthew Heineman) – This film is both an intense portrait of the struggles of everyday citizens living amid the Mexican drug wars and a miraculous piece of boots-on-the-ground journalism. Heineman is in near-constant danger as he embeds himself with the cartels and with the groups fighting the cartels. As bullets whiz by the camera, you realize the filmmakers could have been killed at any moment, and in some instances, it seems more likely than not.

Much of the story follows a group of Mexican citizens who join forces and rise up with the intention of defending their towns against the drug cartels. However, corruption runs rampant, and the organization begins to morph into the very thing it formed to stand against. This turn is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable since we realize there is nothing in these border towns the cartels do not have some say in. The cartels sow devastation wherever they go, reap the benefits, and leave the scorched earth behind to do the same elsewhere.

There are other passages in the film about a group of racist American yahoos who arm themselves to defend their not-in-any-danger town from the borders wars. These sequences are less effective narratively, but they help make an interesting thematic point. Bravado is easy when the war is not yours. The citizens of Mexico are fighting to protect themselves and their livelihoods. The battle is real. The Americans, well, they are just playing war.

Winter on Fire (directed by Evgeny Afineevsky) – For three months in 2013-14, Ukraine burned as the nation’s citizens revolted against the president’s alignment with Russia and refusal to move Ukraine closer politically with the European Union. The streets became a warzone packed with men, women, children, students, and the elderly, all fighting against a police force set loose like a guard dog off its chain.

Afineevsky’s film shares much of its DNA with Cartel Land, exploring as it does a violent people’s revolt against an oppressive ruling class. As with the anti-cartel group Heineman chronicled, the Ukrainian revolution is infiltrated by criminals working for the government who are sent in to destabilize the movement. Afineevsky then shows us firsthand the bravery and blood required to take back a nation from its usurpers. The people are arrested, beaten, and killed, and the camera never stops rolling. As viewers, we become a part of the uprising, and we are forced to wonder why such basic human rights must be paid for with the lives of so many.

The Look of Silence (directed by Joshua Oppenheimer) – A follow-up to Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated critical darling The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence considers the same events – the Indonesian genocide of the 1970s – through a different lens. This time, rather than letting the war criminals damn themselves with their own testimony, Oppenheimer follows one man whose brother was among the one million slaughtered during the military coup.

The film is not as formally daring as its more experimental predecessor, but it may be more emotionally taxing as we watch Adi Rukun confront the people who killed his brother. Many of these men are old and infirm, but as the victors, they have no regrets about their actions. Rather, they take great pride in their roles in advancing the cause, and their callousness is shocking for both Adi and us.

Oppenheimer’s film is methodically paced and expertly stitched together so that the full weight of Adi’s inquisition only becomes clear at the end. If The Act of Killing is about the monsters that terrorized a nation, then The Look of Silence is about the fear and anger those monsters still inspire in the people forced to live under their rule.

What Happened, Miss Simone? (directed by Liz Garbus) – Garbus, who previously was nominated for The Farm: Angola, USA, has spent most of her career focusing on the stories of people misunderstood by the world. In films such as The Execution of Wanda Jean, Girlhood, and There’s Something Wrong with Aunt Diane, Garbus has taken subjects with prescribed narratives in the public consciousness and offered up a fuller picture of their stories. Here, she accomplishes the same feat with the life of singer-songwriter-political activist Nina Simone.

With Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, on board as an executive producer, Garbus is granted access to strikingly intimate details of Simone’s life. In particular, her diaries and letters reveal the complex inner struggle of a woman whose personal life was a wreck at the same time as her professional career began to take off. The film lays out clearly the cycle of abuse that took place between her manager/husband and her and the way that abuse informed her actions. The audience comes away from the film richer for having viewed it and with a deeper understanding of someone of whom we may have known but about whom we knew little.

The final analysis

Amy has won most reliable precursor awards. It has the box office. It is the kind of film the Academy generally loves. It may not be the most accomplished or daring film in the lineup, but it will resonate with a group of voters who understand the struggles of life in the media eye, whether directly or indirectly. Cartel Land is popular, and there are some who will want to award Oppenheimer for the twin achievements of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, but by any measure, Amy will be tough to beat.

Will win: Amy
Should win: Winter on Fire
Should have been here: Racing Extinction

Tomorrow: Best Documentary Short

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