Anna Dimond is an AwardsLine contributor.
From sites of massacres in Indonesia to massive half-pipes in Vermont, from Holland’s halls of art to the world of backup singing, the year’s shortlisted documentary features are stories that would otherwise go untold, some shedding new light on headline-grabbing turf. Each reveals a facet of how we live now: The tragedies and the triumphs, and the power of the genre to share deeper narratives that define identity and culture.
When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the shortlisted films December 3, 15 feature-length documentaries advanced further in the race for a 2014 Oscar nomination. The fact that 147 docs qualified to compete at the beginning of the season demonstrates the power and scope of the genre. Among the films that made the shortlist, Twenty Feet From Stardom is Morgan Neville’s introduction to the world of backup singing through the lives of several women who have had long careers singing behind big names. The brainchild of music executive Gil Friesen, who co-produced the movie, Neville quickly learned that backup singers’ spots on the stage aren’t about lack of talent. “It becomes a film about how we measure success in our country and our society,” he says. “When I first started hearing these hard-luck stories of missed opportunities, these people weren’t broken or bitter about it,” Neville explains. “They had come to see it in a peaceful way. (It) was a way to live the life that you actually have (versus the one that you want). Most of us live in between.”
Taking a break from the stage, magician act Penn and Teller examine the work of Tim Jenison, a Texas tech entrepreneur and inventor, for Tim’s Vermeer, which documents Jenison’s mission to show how Dutch master Johannes Vermeer’s painting might have been aided by technology. At first, says director Teller, it was focused on the intersection between science and art. “But as we shot the movie, the story was about a person who built his own Everest and climbed it.”
Several films this year deal directly with questions of narrative and identity in both the personal and political realms. Director Sarah Polley was 11 when her mother died. In Stories We Tell, she turns the camera on her family to learn about the past. Nostalgia-heavy flashbacks are woven with Polley’s interviews, in which her siblings and father share memories from myriad points of view. Their versions suggest how family stories can define us, while spinning a patchwork of truths and packing a punch of a twist at the end.
Identity is just part of the equation in Lucy Walker’s The Crash Reel. Former pro snowboarder Kevin Pearce was slated to be an Olympic contender in 2010, but made headlines when he sustained a career-ending brain injury before the games began. Soon after, Walker practically embedded with the Pearces to document Kevin’s recovery. The Crash Reel celebrates the culture of the sport, but also shows his family’s remarkable support and palpable pain as he wrestles with life without snowboarding. In one particularly poignant moment, he cries to his therapist, wishing things could go back to how they were.
With its depiction of a different kind of regret, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act Of Killing captures both the intimate and the political nature of narrative through interviews with men behind massacres. Over several years, the director interviewed some of the people in positions of power responsible for mass killings across Indonesia in the mid-1960s. In the film, the men re-enact their memories of intimidation tactics and murder, producing a surreal film within a film. The central figure is Anwar Congo, an elderly gangster who gamely demonstrates how he systematically strangled victims. “I lingered on Anwar because his pain was so close to the surface,” says Oppenheimer. Congo and his cohorts are still in power at every echelon of politics in Indonesia. “I offered to film them sharing why they wanted to kill: How do you want to be seen, and how do you see yourself?” Oppenheimer says. “It was not a kind of trick. It was a response to their openness. I began to realize the boasting may not be a sign of pride, but to convince themselves to not see.”
Humanity, and the struggle with ideals and compromise, is a palpable force in Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, which translates Egypt’s revolutionary politics into the personal. With verité-style footage, the film focuses on characters whose beliefs are both unifying and challenging as their country erupts. Netflix released The Square, and with it, has made its first foray into an Oscar campaign.
In Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish, corporate practices—and our role in reinforcing them—are the forces in question. The 2010 death of Dawn Brancheau, a SeaWorld trainer who was fatally attacked by a killer whale there, piqued Cowperthwaite’s interest. Seeking answers about the attack, the director hit dead ends, but kept digging, tracing the whale’s history back to its capture, and discovering the factors that might have contributed to its violent nature.
While this year’s documentary field features films that are disparate in subject, the medium allows for a collective opportunity to explore more. Among the other shortlisted films that work hard to achieve this are The Armstrong Lie, directed by Alex Gibney; Cutie And The Boxer, directed by Zachary Heinzerling; Dirty Wars, directed by Rick Rowley; First Cousin Once Removed, directed by Alan Berliner; God Loves Uganda, directed by Roger Ross Williams; Life According To Sam, directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix; Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, directed by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin; and Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life And Time Of Tim Hetherington, directed by Sebastian Junger.
Says Oppenheimer, “The Act Of Killing (has had) a powerful effect because it holds up a mirror to all of us. I don’t see nonfiction filmmaking as finding a great story and telling it. It’s a means to explore the world in a deep and sustained way.”