Here are the Oscar-nominated Documentary Films
Five films will compete for Best Documentary Feature Film at the 90th Academy Awards ceremony on March 4. Three of them are US productions (Abacus, Strong Island and Icarus), the other two are the French film (Faces, Places), and (Last Men in Aleppo), the first film directed/produced by Syrians to be acknowledged by the Academy. In the group are filmmakers with well-established careers (Steve James and Agnès Varda), as well as newcomers or semi-débutant documentarians (Bryan Fogel, Yance Ford, Fayyad Firas). Themes that are dear to the universe of US documentary filmmaking, as well as to the Oscars, in the last decades — such as racial tensions; injustices against ethnically marginalized populations; wars in the Middle East and their unfolding — come to the fore once more in this edition of the Awards.
Abacus — Small enough to jail (Steve James, 2016)
We’ll start with Abacus: Small Enough to Jail. Released in 2016, the film is directed by Steve James — well-known American documentarian who began his career in the 1990s. James is responsible for one of the 90’s documentary classics, Hoop Dreams (1994), and later directed other important films such as Stevie (2002) and Life Itself (2014) — about the life and the career of film critic Roger Ebert. Abacus was produced to be exhibited by PBS’ television series Frontline, in dialogue with the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Both Frontline and ITVS are connected to funding available for US Public Television through the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting).
Abacus tells the story of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, a bank based in Chinatown, New York, which was founded in 1984 by a Sino-American businessman Thomas Sung to provide well-being to the Chinese community by providing capital resources for the development of businesses for its residents. Abacus Bank became national news in 2012 when nineteen of its employees were indicted on suspicion of fraud in mortgages sold to the quasi-governmental company FNMA (Fannie Mae), amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. As we know it, this process — the sale of unsecured mortgage contracts — was the main trigger of the 2008 financial crisis.
The discovery of Abacus Bank’s involvement in this practice has become a major media spectacle. Handcuffed to each other, bank employees were taken arrested in front of dozens of television stations’ cameras, setting up a case of national interest. From that moment on, prosecutors sought to connect the involvement of some of the bank’s employees in criminal practices to the Abacus’ top management, believing them to have been operations encouraged by the company. What makes the story interesting — and the film tells this precisely — is that Abacus was the only formally prosecuted bank for the predatory financial practices that led to the crisis. Another fact is that Abacus is the 2,500th+ largest US bank — far behind top-position banks such as Chase or JP Morgan, which also participated in the same type of operations.
Abacus takes up this issue by meditating about what’s at stake regarding the attempt of proving institutional culpability of the Abacus Bank as a perpetuator of damages to the United States’ financial system. How random could Abacus’ identification be as the only bank judicially held accountable in the US for the country’s crisis? Thirty years after the case of Vincent Chin, has there been a change in the way in which the country relates to the cultures that make it a nation, as well as to the particularities of their practices? Are all of these cultures regarded by the law in the same way? Steve James’ film investigates the issue on several facets, situating chronologically its narrative before the trial that will decide whether or not the Abacus Bank is guilty of charge. Compared to the other nominees, Abacus is somewhat narratively tied to a journalistic logic — perhaps due to its exhibition relationship to the Frontline series.
Strong Island (Yance Ford, 2017)
Strong Island is the debut film of director Yance Ford, distributed by Netflix. With autobiographical tones, its narrative is centered around the story of the filmmaker’s brother’s murder in 1992. Strong Island won one of the Jury’s special awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017 and received other important nominations and awards at major film festivals. Strong Island was a project carried out over ten years, starting in 2005. Ford is the first transgender man to be nominated for an Academy Award.
William Ford was shot to death in the chest by an individual named Mark Riley, an employee of a local mechanic’s shop who, at that time, postponed indefinitely the repair of the victim’s car. Riley, however, never became a defendant. His case was dismissed by a Grand Jury, whose secret sessions determined the absence of crime on his part. Strong Island exposes the incurable wounds caused by William’s murder in the life of the filmmaker and his family — physical, mental, and psychological damage, which are transposed forcefully into a documentary narrative form. His case touches collectivity in presenting itself as another tragic episode of the African-American experience. The film makes palpable the notion of a life lived on a tightrope between resignation and confrontation. This sentiment governed the life of the filmmaker’s parents in Charleston, under the Jim Crow laws, where they came from and from where they were able to come out alive in search of a better life for the family. This same sentiment, however, was personified differently later on with the death of one of their children, in the North, a place where they thought to be more protected.
Yance Ford’s film evokes all the emotional nuances of the case and its consequences, grounding itself in a disturbingly silent, obscure atmosphere, which exudes the pain of its director. Ford constructs the film from resources such as interviews with close people, family archives as well as testimonials given by himself, speaking directly, in frontal framing. This is a procedure which reminds us of the figure of filmmaker Marlon Riggs in the 1989 classic Tongues Untied — a documentary which, by openly exposing the wounds of the status of its director as a gay black man, unleashed one of the greatest controversies caused by the exhibition of a documentary in the US.
Interestingly, Tongues Untied is one of Yance Ford’s favorite films, as it appears in Ford’s profile in the documentary series P.O.V. website, where he worked for many years as a producer.
The maturation of Strong Island’s narrative for ten years is transposed in its viewing. The way in which the story of his family skillfully points to the collective and political evokes the ability of Ford in his filmic endeavor.
Last Men in Aleppo (Feras Fayyad, 2017)
Directed by Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad, Last Men in Aleppo was well received at the 2017 Sundance Festival, being the Grand Jury Prize winner in the World Documentary category. The Syrian Civil war has been the subject of several other compelling documentaries launched recently, among them Cries from Syria (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2017) and The White Helmets (Joanna Natasegara, 2016).
Fayyad’s film also focuses on the work of the Syrian Civil Defence, “The White Helmets,” a voluntary organization that operates in the territories occupied by forces of resistance to Bashar al-Assad. By following-up three of its members, Last Men in Aleppo shows the daily work of the organization, which centers primarily on the search and rescue of victims of bombed buildings, helping with their transportation as well as providing first aid.
The strength of the documentary lies, above all, in the methodological-stylistic choices of its director. The narrative structure of Last Men in Aleppo is based on a both patient and judicious observation of the circumstance it purposes to portray. There is little space in the film for more demarcated rational-analytical commentaries, either on the part of its enunciation — as it would occur in the use of letterings and/or voice over narration — or on people talking to the camera in standardized interview settings.
It is in that sense that we learn about the White Helmets, both in their organizational work as well as in the individuality of their components, from what emerges from the inexorability of the circumstance. Fayyad’s camera puts us close to the work of debris removal of bombed buildings, to the expectations surrounding the possibility of survivors, and, in this same sense, to the anguish in the face of setbacks. We are together with the members of the group in a moment of pause after nightfall, when they talk to each other about their dreams and their homesickness. We become aware of the reasons why they remain in Aleppo as they await the beginning of a new day of work, marked by indeterminacy.
Last Men in Aleppo emphasizes what it is like to be with a camera in a territory such as Aleppo, whether in moments of lull or in the full intensity of the experience. This intensity is recognizable from images that reach the world on daily news. Images of retrieval and identification of body parts are not left out in the film, but appear less as a way of sensationalizing the war and more as a way of stressing that this is part of the work faced daily by members of the Civil Defense as well as by the rest of the population. There is competence in the way Last Men in Aleppo transposes the Aleppo experience to its narrative, being able to link collective tragedy to the level of personal and individualized affliction.
Icarus (Bryan Fogel, 2017)
Released in 2017 and directed by American filmmaker Bryan Fogel, Icarus has received much attention both from film critics and the audience. Icarus was nominated for Best Documentary at the BAFTA and received a Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. The outreach of the film, however, grew considerably from its acquisition by Netflix. The incorporation of Icarus into the VOD platform catalog was a widely publicized phenomenon — worth $5 million, it was the largest amount ever spent by the company for the distribution of a documentary.
There is a correlation between the financial magnitude involved in the distribution of Icarus and the thematic extent encompassed by its narrative — or, actually, to the thematic amplitude acquired by the way the initial project was transformed throughout the filming process. As it appears, Icarus was meant to be a Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004) sort of film, in which the director/protagonist launches himself on an unusual experience for a determined period of time. In the case of Icarus, Fogel’s intention was to test the effects of doping on his sports performance months before his participation in a semiprofessional cycling event, the “Haute Route.” Likewise, the experiment would involve the attempt in disguising the presence of banned substances in his body. For this purpose, Fogel found as an accomplice scientist Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory.
Although Fogel is able to draw some conclusions from his experiment, Icarus’ narrative takes on much larger proportions when, in 2014, the RUSADA (Russian Anti-Doping Agency) starts being accused of involvement in a national and systematic doping scheme of its athletes. Given the fact that Rodchenkov had direct ties with the RUSADA, the scientist sees in his acquaintance with Fogel and in his film projects a possible way of handling the situation. Icarus ended up taking a central position in denouncing the actions not of an individual or a small group of them, but of a major scheme linked to federal and/or international forces.
Whether for opportunism, a genuine desire to help or thirst for justice, Fogel guides his Icarus in the direction of the sun. In that sense, there’s a challenge that the director ultimately meets by telling both stories in a satisfactory way. Fogel utilizes a plethora of narrative devices (non-diegetic music, animations, cutaway and archival images, TV broadcast footage), as a way of making the film match the “real” problem to which he wants it to relate. It is also in that regard that the presence of a broad and wealthy scheme of production is felt more heavily in Icarus than in Strong Island, Abacus or Faces, Places.
Faces, Places (Visages, Villages, Agnès Varda and JR, 2017)
Faces, Places directed by legendary French filmmaker Agnès Varda and the artist-photographer JR is a sort of “eye relief drop” among those nominated for the Award. One could argue that the other four films fulfill the function to which Documentary is most commonly associated: a powerful medium able to claim attention to social, political, or historical issues at a given space-time circumstance. That is the case of the above-mentioned films, in what regards themes such as the Syrian Civil War; an international and fraudulent athletic doping scheme; the 2008 US financial crisis and the marginalization of ethnic communities; or the perennial racial tensions in the same country.
Varda and JR take a different path by presenting their concerns in a subtler way, opting for sensitivity rather than for a markedly assertive stance. As a film, Faces, Places consists in the meeting of Agnès Varda with JR for the carrying out of an art project through several villages in the French countryside. 50 years younger than Varda, JR is an artist already known for this project, named “Inside Out,” which consisted on the composition of gigantic photographic portraits of residents, which are positioned and pasted in strategic points of the cities. Faces, Places shows us the execution of that project, now having Varda and JR as a team. As image experts working together, they come into contact with different life stories and choose tenderly the individuals that will be contemplated by their endeavor. In accomplishing each one of their “missions” an homage is paid to individual trajectories, establishing connections to the spaces in which they are inserted. Through their crystallization in art, these trajectories are externalized and are able to be contemplated.
It is also from an epistemological point of view that Faces, Places distinguishes itself from the other four films. Faces, Places stands as a counterpoint to the kind of documentary usually nominated for the Academy Awards. Varda and JR’s narrative carries in itself the main contribution made by a modern French Documentary, which is externalized in the works of filmmakers such as Jean Rouch, Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard and Varda herself. The knowledge evoked by Faces, Places depends on we, as spectators, accept Varda’s individual figure as the main conductor of the meditation we are being exposed to. As we watch the film, we are connected with Varda’s rationality in an essay-like narrative flow, being guided by the line of her thought. By accepting this kind of personalized enunciation, the film’s concerns come to light. Faces, Places presents itself as a reflection of the filmmaker — along with her new friend JR — in what regards the production of still and moving images before the inexorable passage of time. At the age of ninety, Varda knows — and makes clear through the film — that the time ahead of her is significantly shorter than the time behind her. The meditation about her craft emerges once more as a point of thematic foundation. That is a motif that she has touched upon for some time, in films such as The Gleaners and I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (2008). In Faces, Places, Varda reflects on specific passages of her career (there’s a strong reference to Ulysses ), as well as her place (and the place of others who were close to her) in the History of Film.
The charm that permeates the atmosphere of Faces, Places lies in the film’s ability to make us smile throughout its viewing. We become identified with Varda for the sensitive, bittersweet sharing of the joys and anguishes she has to offer at this point in her life. Varda’s touching narrative has also received many positive reviews from the critics — the film was awarded the “Golden Eye” at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017. Agnès Varda also received this year’s Academy Honorary Award for her lifelong contributions to cinema.
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