LOS ANGELES, Jan 7, (RTRS): In the nearly 75 years since the Oscars began awarding a documentary feature, no non-fiction filmmaker has ever been nominated for director, despite being eligible for the prize.
The most obvious reason is that “directing” seems antithetical to the spirit of nonfiction, which is about revealing unsullied truths about the world in which we live. Documentary directors have been generally regarded as observers or journalists, rather than as creative artists, and the Oscar process has, until recently, rewarded more conservative approaches to the form.
Such prominent documentary figures as Errol Morris and Werner Herzog worked for decades before the Academy honored them. Morris’ “The Fog of War” won the 2004 Oscar and Herzog’s “Encounters at the End of the World” was nominated in 2009. But even those films, as quirky and iconoclastic as they are, operated in the familiar spheres of journalistic interrogation and fact-filled nature docs. It’s always been expected that doc filmmakers give themselves over to the subject matter, rather than make bold artistic choices.
Yet the shortlist for the 2016 documentary Oscar continues a trend toward embracing non-fiction directors as auteurs, opening up the possibility of consideration alongside their fictional counterparts.
Among the potential nominees is Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson,” a unique memoir composed of outtakes from Johnson’s career as a cinematographer; Ezra Edelman’s “O.J.: Made in America,” a kaleidoscopic 712-hour look at American culture through the prism of O.J. Simpson’s rise and fall; Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” which draws a direct line between the amendment that ended slavery and the mass incarceration of black men; Keith Maitland’s “Tower,” an animated account of the 1966 mass shooting at the University of Texas; and Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea,” the first documentary to ever win top prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
“If you look at the Oscar shortlist this year and compare it to the shortlist and nominations of 2002 or 2003, they’re just different,” says David Wilson, the co-founder and co-director of True/False Film Fest, which has been a reliable annual showcase for innovative nonfiction since 2003. “We’re seeing films that are artful, pushing boundaries, and taking real risks, and are taking them seriously. That feels like progress to me.”
One of the breakout films from last year’s True/False Fest, Johnson’s “Cameraperson,” takes first-person documentary filmmaking to a startling new place. Over 15 years as a globetrotting nonfiction cinematographer, Johnson collected footage from locales as diverse as the war-torn regions of Bosnia and Darfur, a maternity ward in Nigeria, a secret prison in Yemen, and her childhood home in Wyoming, where her mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Without even the connective tissue of voiceover narration, Johnson creates a personal collage of her life and art that emphasizes the power of the camera to forge relationships and give a voice to the marginalized.
“I feel like one of the things I was willing to do as a director, was not know what this film should be, but to pursue, with the greatest intensity and attention, the deep questions that are completely real to me and urgent in this moment in history,” Johnson says.
She cites another film from this year’s shortlist, “Weiner,” about Anthony Weiner’s failed bid for New York City mayor, as an example of the dynamic qualities of nonfiction, which can change context and meaning both during and after filming.
“When you look at ‘Weiner,’ the meaning of Weiner allowing himself to be filmed in that moment changes over time. In my mind, the documentary relationship is always alive and changing. ‘Weiner’ means different things now than it did, as a film, when they made it, because historical events have shifted.”
The shifting of historical events also brings new meaning to “Tower,” an ingenious re-creation of the day Charles Whitman took the elevator to the top floor of the University of Texas Tower and opened fire for 96 minutes, killing 16 and wounding dozens more. In August 1966, the country had never experienced a mass shooting on campus, but they’ve become all-too-common in recent history, and Maitland’s powerful documentary celebrates the courage and humanity of those in the line of fire.
LOS ANGELES: Meryl Streep needs another acting award like Minnesota needs more snow. But, as the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn prepares to give the versatile actress the honorary Cecil B. DeMille Award on Jan 8, the prolific American filmmaker could have been describing Streep herself when he said: “The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly. That is dedication.”
The honor, given last year to Denzel Washington, and previously awarded to such legends as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Lucille Ball, adds to an embarrassment of Golden Globe riches for the actress considered, much to her chagrin, as the finest of her generation. Since her first Globes nomination as supporting actress for “The Deer Hunter” in 1978, followed by her first win the following year, as supporting actress for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” Streep has racked up a record eight wins out of a whopping 30 nominations.
As she reflected on her evolution from lonely, misunderstood New Jersey teenager to accomplished artist, Streep said, “There’s a particular search that goes on in young women in my generation, which was different because there were not at that time so many opportunities open to women — there were few women in business, not so many women doctors. … There was also the search for how you were going to present to the world that comes from the culture, from what we expect from women — all that made me an artist because it made me want to create myself.”