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Oscar-Nominated Docs Push Boundaries

Variety logo Variety 2/7/2017 Kathy A. McDonald
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Five expertly crafted, thought-provoking and moving films are nominated in the doc feature category for the 89th Academy Awards. All made the cut from 145 films submitted, to the short list of 15, to nominee. Per AMPAS rules, only those members who’ve seen all the films can vote; each doc comes with an extensive list of previous kudos or nods from festivals, critics’ associations, guilds, and doc peers.

The Golden Bear winner at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival, director Gianfranco Rosi and producer Donatella Palermo’s “Fire at Sea,” turns the camera on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, evocatively capturing the impact of the international refugee crisis on the island’s citizens, who by chance of geography, have come to be at its center. Director Raoul Peck, along with producers Remi Grellety and Hebert Peck, brings author James Baldwin’s unfinished treatise on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers to life in a cinematic kaleidoscope of text and images via “I Am Not Your Negro,” just released by Magnolia Pictures.

An autistic child breaks out of his own silent world and communicates using Disney animated movies as a template for understanding reality in director Roger Ross Williams and producer Julie Goldman’s “Life, Animated,” from A&E IndieFilms. Considered the frontrunner by Oscar handicappers, “O.J.: Made in America,” is director Ezra Edelman and producer Caroline Waterlow’s epic opus funded by ESPN that provides deep insight into the cultural norms and racial conflicts surrounding the tragic fall of the former football star. In the Netflix-backed “13th,” director Ava DuVernay with producers Spencer Averick and Howard Barish, investigate the unjust legacy of mass incarceration and criminalization of African-Americans in the U.S. freed by the 13th Amendment with a damning caveat.

Demonstrating once again that the path to Oscar glory often begins at the Sundance Film Festival, both “OJ: Made in America” and “Life, Animated” launched at Sundance 2016.

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“Life” garnered the grand jury documentary directing prize. Produced by Motto Pictures’ Goldman (the first nom for the vet doc producer) and directed by Academy Award winner Williams (winner of the 2009 short doc Oscar for “Music by Prudence”), “Life, Animated” is based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind’s bestseller chronicling the childhood of his autistic son, Owen.

“We really wanted to tell the story in a way that was immersive and from Owen’s point of view,” Goldman says. From age 11 on, Owen was able to communicate by adapting the language and myths of animated films. “Life, Animated” incorporates well-known Disney animated sequences and original hand-drawn pencil animation to illustrate his inner world. “There are three different layers of animation in film,” Williams says. “As a director, I had to understand how to work with storyboards and think in a narrative way as the animation couldn’t change.” The filmmakers tracked Owen for more than a year; the resulting verite footage anchors the life-affirming film.

Goldman found the doc resonates with audiences, from early festival screenings for high school students at Sundance to those watching on Delta airline seatback screens. “The film gives voice to those who are outside and on the margins,” she says.

Williams adds, “The documentary shows the power of story to transform a life.”

The director came to understand through the production process that Owen — and others on the autism spectrum — have so much to offer society. “Life, Animated,” presents that broader message. “It’s a testament to otherness, a thumbs up to outsiders and a celebration of what it means to be human,” he says. Nominated by the PGA and DGA and awarded a special achievement in animation by the Annie Awards, the doc aired in 2016 on A&E and is currently available on iTunes and Amazon Prime.

The multi-layered “I Am Not Your Negro” took six years to bring to fruition as director-writer Raoul Peck found a way into his subject.

“It was a long process to engage with Baldwin, I was sure I didn’t want to make a biography,” he says.

Baldwin’s writings had personally meant so much to Peck. “I considered for a long time how to give that to the present generation, artistically and cinematically, in an irreproachable and original way.” He felt an additional responsibility because he was given complete access to the late writer’s estate.

Samuel L. Jackson narrates from Baldwin’s unfinished book linking the three assassinated leaders, intercut with interviews with the author and civil rights advocates, historical footage, and film clips.

“It’s really a cinematic experience,” offers Peck as the documentary also raises questions regarding the power and the storyline behind Hollywood’s portrayal of race and race relations.

He contends that the documentary genre is increasingly formatted and pushed toward entertainment at any price. “It’s hard today for a young filmmaker to resist that,” he says.

Peck came to filmmaking after being engaged in politics and advocacy in his native Haiti. “It’s a medium for me to voice my view of the world and my wanting of change,” he says, although storytelling and characters, rather than didacticism, are at the film’s heart.

Italy’s Rosi relays an emotional take on ordinary people caught up in a very complicated geo-political situation in “Fire at Sea.”

Off the coast of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean between Libya and Sicily is the world’s deadliest migrant route as African and Middle Eastern emigrants are often lost or frequently intercepted on their trek to Europe. Rosi initiated the project without a script and does not use narration to drive the documentary; rather, he wants the audience to follow the journey of the film’s main characters, a 12-year-old boy and the island’s doctor who is the link between the islanders and migrants. “I want the audience to interpret for themselves, to immerse themselves in the storytelling,” he says of the doc, which he likens to a poem rather than an essay.

Rosi forgoes facts and figures; there are no talking head interviews. “I wanted to make a film that was opening questions, the challenge was more and more to close the door on information.”

Migrants must pay smugglers and traffickers handsomely for their passage to Europe and oftentimes encounter death. “They are reduced to numbers but within are individuals who are escaping, trying to reach freedom,” Rosi says. He hopes the film, slated for distribution in 64 countries, will have an impact on the unconscionable dynamic. “Art can not change the course of history, but we can create an awareness.”

DuVernay lets “13th,” the first documentary to open the New York Film Festival, IDA award winner, and BAFTA nominee, speak for itself on the issues of mass criminalization and incarceration of African-Americans powerfully detailed in the film.

“I want people to come to their own conclusions; I want people to be forced into their own reckoning,” says the helmer when reached in the midst her next film, Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Instead of serving as “a bully pulpit” for the doc, DuVernay backed Netflix’s marketing plan of community screenings, advertising, and social media outreach to champion the doc and its substantive message. The film weaves together archival footage, present-day interviews and a century-and-a-half of statistical evidence to uphold its thesis. The end result, DuVernay says, asks audiences to consider, “Are you on the right or wrong side of history as it pertains to liberty and justice for all?”

DuVernay intercuts bold lettered graphics as a creative element throughout to convey hefty concepts and statistics. “The look is hand-made,” she explains of lettering for weighted words such as “criminal,” repeated and highlighted to reinforce its historical use as propaganda. She credits L.A./N.Y. firm Rock Paper Scissors for the title design. The soundtrack is culled from black musical tradition, including Nina Simone, Common, and Public Enemy, because “throughout the decades black artists have been narrating the struggle and trying to gain awareness and attention, trying to compel action,” she notes.

Earning ACE, PGA, and IDA awards, director-producer Edelman and producer Waterlow’s “O.J.: Made in America” is the longest film nominated for an Oscar (clocking in at a running time of seven hours and 47 minutes). It is an unconventional Oscar entry: produced as a film, it was shown in segments on ESPN but cannot be categorized as a sports documentary. Edelman frames O.J. Simpson’s life in the larger context of U.S. and Los Angeles’ race relations, beginning with the 1965 Watts riots through the Rodney King beating and trial. Simpson’s celebrity — he’s among the most famous people in America to be charged with murder — is juxtaposed with everything leading up to and surrounding the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.

“I was approached by ESPN to make a longer film about O.J.,” says the helmer. “After wrestling with the idea, the greater canvas being offered gave me the motivation, I was much more interested in telling a multi-layered story than in the subject itself.”

A fundamental divide between races was revealed when it came to viewing the criminal justice system. “Why did two groups see the same things and yet see different things?” Edelman asks.

The almost eight-hour film was cut down by Edelman and his three ACE Award-winning editors from 800 hours of footage and more than 70 interviews with O.J.’s contemporaries, the Brown and Goldman families, and almost every official and attorney involved with the investigation and trial.

Edelman’s operating principle was to keep audiences emotionally engaged throughout. He tags back-and-forth between the “macro and micro,” in a story that continues to fascinate more than 20 years after the crime and trial. The feature doc goes a long way to blur the lines for audiences and eliminates the division between TV, film, and streaming platforms.

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