In a year of firsts for the Academy Awards, more history is being made in the ranks of Best Documentary Feature than perhaps any other category.
Take Agnès Varda, for starters—co-director of Faces Places with artist-photographer JR. At age 89 she may well qualify as the oldest nominee in a competitive category in Oscar history—a week older than another of this year’s nominees, James Ivory, a Best Adapted Screenplay contender for Call Me by Your Name. The Academy confirms she is the oldest nominee ever among actors or directors, the only categories for which it maintains age statistics.
But Varda doesn’t find that distinction very, well, distinctive.
“Should that be a title of glory to be the oldest?” she asks Deadline with some amusement. “Okay, I’m the oldest. Say it three times, then it makes no sense. Should I come [to the Oscars] in a wheelchair to look old?”
Strong Island director Yance Ford enters the Oscar record books as the first transgender filmmaker ever nominated for an Academy Award, a distinction he embraces.
“I am tremendously proud to occupy that space,” Ford says. “It’s something that I have to get used to—being a public talking point—and I hope what I can do with this nomination is to help people realize that transgender folks are not some sort of alien species that you’ve never seen.”
Ford spent a decade working on the documentary, a deeply personal exploration of how the racially-charged killing of his older brother in 1992 impacted the Ford family. William Ford Jr. was shot to death by a white auto mechanic after a simmering dispute over a car repair, and the killer escaped prosecution by claiming he felt threatened by the African-American Ford. The film raises troubling questions about what constitutes reasonable fear, and whether racial bias among law enforcement officials inhibited a fair evaluation of the case.
“Strong Island has been a film that has really affirmed for many, many people what they know, which is there needs to be wholesale systemic reform of our criminal justice system because it’s broken,” Ford asserts.
The film has won numerous awards, including the Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Documentary, but Ford says landing that Oscar nomination felt anything but certain.
“I was thrilled. I was shocked and surprised,” Ford reveals, adding that his joy extends to others recognized in the Best Documentary Feature field. “I was also really excited for Steve James. That’s a historic nomination too.”
The history-making aspect to James’ nomination has to do with his previous record with Academy voters. Despite being widely acknowledged as one of the leading documentary filmmakers of the past quarter century, he had never earned an Oscar nod for directing until this year with Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.
“It meant a lot to me to get the nomination because I’ve been doing this for a while and there were certainly several other films over the years that people thought might get nominated that didn’t,” he says. “I never let that upset me so much because I feel like I got so much support when certain films weren’t nominated or even shortlisted that it told me people really felt strongly about the work.”
James’ documentary centers on Thomas Sung and the bank he founded—Abacus Federal Savings, which caters to New York’s Chinese immigrant community. Abacus became the only U.S. lending institution to face criminal charges resulting from the 2008 financial crisis, but James believes it was a case of selective prosecution—the Manhattan District Attorney’s office picking on a small bank run by Chinese-Americans who lacked political muscle.
“I think there was racism involved,” James says of the D.A.’s decision to press the case. “I don’t think it was overt and explicit.”
Thomas Sung, his wife and daughters will head to Hollywood for the Academy Awards, but whether seats inside the Dolby Theatre can be arranged for them remains in doubt.
“One way or another they’ll all be there because win or lose we will want to celebrate together,” James shares. “We certainly hope we’ll be able to get them all tickets to be in the house.”
Filmmaker Feras Fayyad earned a ticket to the Academy Awards with his documentary Last Men in Aleppo, about courageous civil defense workers—the so-called White Helmets—in Aleppo, Syria. After relentless bombing raids by Russian and Syrian government forces, the White Helmets rush in to try to rescue the injured trapped under the rubble.
Fayyad made history by becoming the first Syrian director ever nominated for an Oscar. He learned the news while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he screened Last Men in Aleppo for dignitaries.
“On the day of the nomination I was jetlagged, lying on the bed in the hotel actually, and my mobile was next to me but [turned off],” Fayyad recalls. “Then I got a call on the hotel line and a friend of mine asked me, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I’m in the hotel.’ ‘Why didn’t you answer your mobile? You got nominated!’ I said, ‘Don’t joke.’ He said, ‘No, you got nominated!’ He also said, ‘Tell [President] Trump you got nominated and now he will watch the film.’”
Fayyad says the Oscar announcement triggered strong emotions.
“I cried. It’s a moment where my feelings are mixed,” he admits. “My mind went back seven years [to the start of] the tragedy in Syria and feeling I’m lucky to survive, humbled to have this honor. A lot of artists, filmmakers were arrested and killed in prison under torture [by the Syrian regime] and others killed in the war who tried to tell stories about the suffering of the people.”
Vladimir Putin’s Russia factors in the background of Last Men in Aleppo, as the key backer of the brutal Assad regime. But it’s front and center in Icarus, the documentary that earned an Oscar nomination for director Bryan Fogel.
His film played a decisive role in blowing the lid off Russia’s state-sponsored athletics doping program, a scheme so brazen it prompted the International Olympic Committee to formally ban Russia as a country from the Olympic Winter Games in South Korea.
Fogel’s main character, chemist Grigory Rodchenkov, formerly ran Russia’s anti-doping lab, but in Icarus he came clean on the cheating operation that climaxed at the last Winter Olympics—the 2014 Games held in Sochi, Russia. With Fogel’s help, Rodchenkov eventually fled Russia and now lives in hiding in the U.S.
Fogel calls his run to the Oscar nomination “absolutely nerve-racking,” adding, “I’m so happy the Academy nominated the film because for me and I think Grigory [Rodchenkov] and the team behind the film, it’s been very important for us to keep the story in the news and to have people see this film because the events surrounding it are continuing to unfold on a daily basis, and the film has been incredibly impactful on those events.”
Next to the weighty issues tackled in Icarus, Abacus, Strong Island and Last Men in Aleppo, the nominated film from directors Varda and JR may seem comparatively whimsical. In Faces Places the pair—separated in age by more than 50 years—travel around rural France in a van equipped with a photo booth, encountering everyday people including a postman and the wives of dock workers. They take large-scale pictures of their subjects, affixing the gigantic images to buildings and shipping containers, giving their characters an outsized perspective on the meaning of their lives.
“Most of the people JR and me met, they were damn interesting people. All of them are strange or sad or nostalgic,” Varda tells Deadline by phone from Paris.
She described the duo’s mode of filmmaking as, “listening to people, giving them a lot of empathy, a lot of love and because of that they were very open, very interesting. They talked. It’s not a question-answer. It’s a conversation. So the audience feels it. That’s what our job is, to make links [between the film’s subjects and viewers]. That’s what we made. We made links. Voilà.”
On March 4 the directors of all five documentaries—and the films’ producers, who share in the nominations—will unite on the world’s most famous red carpet. The glittering occasion will introduce more than a touch of glamour into a nonfiction space more often associated with grittiness. Most of the filmmakers—though not all—are making plans to don their Oscar Sunday best.
“I bought a tuxedo in Paris two weeks ago. And at the time I didn’t know we were going to be nominated for the Oscar but we had the BAFTA nomination, the DGA nomination,” Fogel notes. “I think the real question is whether or not I wear the same tuxedo at all three events. I’m being told that I can change my tie.”
Ford is suiting up for action too.
“I went for my first fitting for my tux and I’m pretty happy with it, honestly,” he shares with Deadline. “My alumni magazine described me as short and stocky and it’s true. I’m a short, stocky guy with broad shoulders so I’ve been working with a tailor in midtown [Manhattan]… No matter what happens I’m looking forward to dressing up and going to a big party with a lot of people that I know and care about.”
Fayyad tells Deadline he may borrow a tux. And James may take a similarly economical approach.
“I don’t own a tuxedo, even though I’ve been to a few awards ceremonies,” James relates. “I went to the Oscars back in 1995 for Hoop Dreams—the film wasn’t nominated for best doc but it was nominated for editing. I rented a tux then and I’ve rented a tux every other time I’ve needed to dress up.”
The exception to this sartorial pageantry is Varda, who laughs off talk of her Oscar attire.
“I won’t put special attention on how I will be dressed. Do not expect me to be the model of anything. I’m too small, too fat, too old. I cannot be a model,” she insists.
Her Faces Places co-director JR is known as something of a natty dresser and, given their warm personal relationship, they may walk the carpet arm in arm.
“I don’t accept that JR is going alone [to the Oscars],” she says. “We’ll both go. We’ll laugh, whatever happens. We’ve decided that we will be in a very good mood.”