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Oscars: A Look at the Politically Charged 2017 Documentary Feature Contenders

Deadline logo Deadline 2/17/2017 Antonia Blyth
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This year’s documentary feature nominees are a particularly news-centric bunch, with four out of the five tackling the subjects of current furious worldwide debate. Ava DuVernay’s 13th, Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro and Ezra Edelman’s O.J: Made in America all address the issue of racial discrimination in the U.S., while Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea handles refugee immigration.

Weighty, vital topics such as these must surely appeal to the Academy from the get-go. However, the fifth of the group, Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated, should not by any means be sidelined. Williams, who won an Oscar in 2010 for his documentary short, Music by Prudence, tells the story of how animated film has radically changed the life of a man with autism. This may be less front-and-center than the other subjects in the top five, but it depicts a triumph over a condition that affects many families. Bottom line: all five films are important, educational, and without question, beautifully made.

To reach the Academy’s top five in this category is, of course, an incredible achievement in itself. With a total of 145 films throwing their hats into the ring, and such typical obstacles as restricted access to subjects, highly irregular shooting schedules and a notoriously difficult funding and distribution process, documentary filmmakers must be especially driven. Also, making a film about emotive and often tragic issues requires incredible personal strength. As DuVernay told Deadline of making 13th, “It was really intense. Over 1,000 hours of racist, violent footage that my editor and co-writer Spencer Averick and I got to wade through. It’s not easy to do.”

Edelman, who took the DGA Award for documentary, also spoke of the personal experience of making O.J.: Made in America. “Honestly, I am still weirdly exhausted by it in a way that’s hard to even articulate,” he said. “The subject matter is dark. You’re living with this thing that is all-consuming.”

DuVernay may be best known for directing the 2015 Oscar-nominated Selma, but 13th is not her first foray into the documentary genre. In 2008 she made This is the Life—an exploration of L.A. hip hop culture—following that up with a series of BET TV documentaries. 13th is a landmark achievement in that it exposes a shocking ‘loophole’ in the 13th amendment that technically allows slavery in the instance of a criminal conviction—something not commonly known. DuVernay expertly examines the horrifying downward spiral for people of color trapped within the U.S. justice system and the historical precedent that led to this situation, drawing unsettling parallels with the world today. Said DuVernay: “The documentary talks about Trump, it also talks about many people throughout history who espoused this point of view, and the effects of that kind of policy and that kind of thinking, and also the ways in which people have started to come back at that. And that’s where we are now; that folks will resist this.”

Perhaps the category frontrunner, though, is Edelman’s five-part epic O.J.: Made in America. Like 13th, it’s nominated for an Independent Spirit award, and has won several Critics’ Choice awards (four to 13th’s three). But it scooped the biggest prize at the IDA awards—Best Feature—and is undoubtedly a massive achievement in documentary filmmaking. Spanning some seven hours, O.J. is part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, and focuses on the rise and fall of the infamous sportsman, with a detailed look at race relations and the U.S. political climate from the 1960s up until that notorious ‘trial of the century’. “I wanted to tell a story about race in America through the lens of this guy,” Edelman told us. “But also in a way that could explore the history of Los Angeles and the black community here, and juxtaposing that with O.J.”

Raoul Peck’s examination of race relations in I Am Not Your Negro does something very different from these other films—he draws on the unpublished letters of African-American activist, author and playwright James Baldwin as source material, with Baldwin’s own words making up the entire soundtrack.

Peck allows Baldwin’s words to speak through the ages, demonstrating relevance as clear today as when they were written in the late 1970s. With the voice of Samuel L. Jackson, along with archival recordings of Baldwin himself, the end result is incredible, powerful visual poetry. Peck aligns images of the civil rights movement with black and white photographs of Ferguson protests, highlighting their similarity and thus, how little has actually changed. And he examines the ways American culture has legitimized racism through advertising and movies.

Previously known for Lumumba, his critically-acclaimed 2000 biopic about the first prime minister of the Belgian Congo, and for Fatal Assistance (2013), his documentary about the aid failure following the earthquake in his native Haiti, Peck is nominated for an Independent Spirit award for I Am Not Your Negro. He also won the IDA’s Creative Recognition award, the People’s Choice award at TIFF and Best Documentary at the L.A. Film Critics’ awards.

While Trump’s refugee immigration ban has recently made front-page headlines and inspired nationwide protest in the U.S., Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea takes us to the desperate front lines of the refugee crisis. The film centers on the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, where thousands of refugees continue to be granted safe haven. 70 miles away from North Africa, the island is a first landing place for displaced people, and Rosi (El Sicario, Room 164) depicts the struggles of their journey and arrival, along with the tragic drowning of those whose boats flounder at sea. He also looks at the effect on local people and at the valiant efforts of the island’s single doctor, Pietro Bartolo.

Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin, Fire at Sea involved an 18 month-long, grueling shoot, with Rosi impressively gaining access to the Italian Navy’s rescue vessel. For the local resident viewpoint, Rosi looks through the non-judgmental eye of Samuele Pucillo, a young Italian boy, serving up a grassroots vision of life on the island. In examining a time and place wracked by chaos, Rosi’s unstructured format brilliantly echoes the dislocated sense of his subjects’ lives. This film shows the brutal truth and sheer extent of the worldwide refugee crisis, revealing it as a situation no one can ignore.

For the film lovers who make up the Academy, the tale of a boy literally rescued by movies is surely hard to resist. For many years Owen Suskind didn’t speak, until one day he began communicating from the viewpoint of his favorite Disney characters. In Roger Ross Williams’ film Life, Animated, we see how Suskind makes sense of the world around him via the magic of animated film. Based on a book written by Suskind’s father Ron, the documentary follows Suskind as he prepares to move into his own apartment at the age of 23. It appears that Suskind’s favorite films allow him to channel and control the chaos of his emotions and perception, since these animated movies handle life with clear themes of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and with straightforward emotional responses.

What makes Williams’ film especially powerful though, is the way in which autism is not depicted as a sad and crucifying condition. Instead, we hear from Suskind on his determination to make a life for himself, and Williams cleverly intersperses this testimony with animation using Suskind’s favorite characters. Life, Animated isn’t just a moving tale of triumph over adversity, but a love letter to filmmaking and its transformative powers. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, Williams also picked up the Directing Award at the festival. He was then nominated for DGA and PGA awards and three more at Critics’ Choice, where Suskind took home the prize for Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary.

All in all, there are some very tough choices for Academy voters to make in this final round of voting, with five powerful, influential films on the docket. Many are strong enough to encourage political change; all of them serve to educate and move the viewer. May the best filmmaker win.

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