Eye on the Oscars: Documentaries

One thing is certain when it comes to the Academy’s documentary branch: It knows how to make waves.

Once again, the members have earned accolades and brickbats for their selection of 15 pics to contend for Oscar nominations between now and Jan. 24.

From a pool of 124 eligible titles, a far higher number than in most years, the choices here include films from newbie helmers Nancy Buirski (“The Loving Story”) and Danfung Dennis (“Hell and Back Again”), as well as genre box office toppers “Buck” and “Bill Cunningham New York” from, respectively, first-timers Cindy Meehl and Richard Press.

Previously nominated helmers such as Marshall Curry (“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”) and Wim Wenders (“Pina”) plus 2009 “Man on Wire” Oscar-winning doc director James Marsh (“Project Nim”) also found the welcome mat out for their bracing new works.

Once again, the doc branch showed its preference for topical films such as Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley’s “Battle for Brooklyn,” Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert’s “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” Martyn Burke’s “Under Fire: Journalists in Combat” and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” The duo’s third doc about the West Memphis 3 was recut to include the subject’s release from prison, which was widely attributed to the filmmakers’ perseverance in covering the story.

Rounding out the 2011 lineup are Lorenz Knauer’s “Jane’s Journey,” Susanne Rostock’s “Sing Your Song,” Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s “Undefeated” and David Weissman’s “We Were Here.”

Not included are high-profile docs from big-time helmers including Werner Herzog’s “Into the Abyss,” Kevin Macdonald’s “Life in a Day,” Errol Morris’ “Tabloid,” Morgan Spurlock’s “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” and Steve James’ “The Interrupters.”

James’ omission comes 16 years after helmer’s landmark “Hoop Dreams” was controversially snubbed in 1995, sparking a backlash that changed the way the Academy picks docs.

Other notable absences are Michael Rapaport’s “Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest,” Constance Marks’ “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” Asif Kapadia’s “Senna” and Patricio Guzman’s “Nostalgia for the Light.”

Shortlist of 15 Docs

“Battle for Brooklyn”
Directors: Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, U.S., Rumur
Galinsky and Hawley chronicle the years-long grassroots resistance to the design-, delay- and deception-plagued Atlantic Yards project in New York.
“When we came to this project, we saw the seeds of something that was part of a bigger whole,” Hawley says. “A well-known corporate Goliath was being shown favoritism over the little guy. We found one of those little guys, Daniel Goldstein, and he didn’t want to take it anymore.”
That said, Galinsky believes the doc is not a “left-issue or a right-issue film. This is an Occupy Wall Street movie. It’s about the whole system being hopelessly corrupt.”

“Bill Cunningham New York”
Director: Richard Press
.S., Zeitgeist Films
Press offers a portrait of eccentric New York Times’ “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” photographer Bill Cunningham.
“It took eight years for myself and my producer, Philip Gefter, to convince Bill to agree to do the film. He genuinely could not imagine why anyone would want to make a movie about him. When he did finally agree, I don’t think he actually realized what he was getting into. I shot him for about a week during Fashion Week in 2008, then I came back with my camera that next Monday and he said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? We are making a movie.’ He thought it was just going to be that one week. So it was really a constant negotiation in terms of access.”

“Buck”
Director: Cindy Meehl
U.S., Sundance Selects
It took Meehl all of “two minutes” to persuade horse whisperer Buck Brannaman to star in her first documentary, which turned into a box office victory.
“I was at one of Buck’s clinics, and at this point I had not told anyone that I was going to make this film because I knew it would sound so stupid — I’ve never made a film and now I’m going to make a movie about this amazing man. But at one point, I saw Buck sitting alone, so I gathered up all of my courage and walked over and asked, ‘Have you ever thought about doing a documentary film? I’d really like to make one.’ He just said, ‘Yeah. I think that would be a good idea.’ I said, ‘OK, I’m going to need your phone number.’ ”

“Hell and Back Again”
Director: Danfung Dennis
U.S.-U.K.-Austria, New Video
Dennis intercuts a Marine’s return home with footage of the same soldier’s experiences on the front line.
“I had been working as a freelance photojournalist in Iraq and Afghanistan, and although my images were being published I felt that they were losing their impact after a number of years. I thought society was becoming numb to these images of war, so I wanted to move into a new medium to try and shake people from their indifference. So I started shooting moving images. I wanted to bring this war closer to home and show that the fighting doesn’t stop when these servicemen come home. It’s just a very different struggle — often more difficult than what happens on the battlefield.”

“If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front”
Director: Marshall Curry
U.S., Oscilloscope Laboratories

Curry follows former Earth Liberation Front group member Daniel McGowan, who was arrested in December 2005 and faced life in prison.
“My wife came home from work one day and said, ‘You will never guess what happened. Four federal agents walked into the office and arrested Daniel,’ who was an employee of hers. He was somebody I had met a number of times and didn’t come across as your stereotype of what you would think somebody who would be facing life in prison for domestic terrorism might seem like. For me, whenever reality cuts against my expectation that is interesting. I wanted to know how this guy wound up in this situation? That was the question that drove the movie.”

“Jane’s Journey”
Director: Lorenz Knauer
Germany, First Run Features
Knauer looks at the life and work of wildlife researcher Jane Goodall.
“The moment I met Jane, it was magnetic. At that moment my dream (of making a film about her) began, but at the same moment, I said to myself, ‘Forget it. Every possible film has already been made about Jane Goodall. Why should she ever agree to work with you — a German filmmaker who has no money?’ Cut to 15 years later. Jane comes to Munich to give a lecture at the university. During the book signing after the lecture, I asked her for an opportunity to talk and to my amazement she agreed to have dinner with me where I pitched her the idea of making ‘Jane’s Journey.’ The rest is history.”

“The Loving Story”
Director: Nancy Buirski
U.S., HBO Documentary Films
Buirski tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving whose 1958 marriage led to their arrest in Virginia and the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that overturned anti-miscegenation laws in America.
“When you are dealing with a film about a historical subject and the characters who have already passed away, it’s very hard to have them feel close, but I had no doubts about making this film. The story is right in the nexus of these two huge issues; racial identity, as represented by President Obama and many others and marriage equality, as represented by the Prop. 8 issue in addition to others. So for me it was a contemporary film as opposed to a historical one.”

“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory”
Directors: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
U.S., HBO Documentary Films
Berlinger and Sinofsky’s third film about three teens wrongfully accused of murder was re-edited in August to include an ending that incorporates footage from the release of the trio.
“We tried to make the film a self-sufficient viewing experience, so that if you haven’t seen the previous films you can fully comprehend the case and all of its complications,” Berlinger says. “It was hard to figure out what to leave out because the first two films covered a seven-year period and consisted of almost five hours of screen time. So we made the decision to revisit those trial elements that had the most direct impact on the conviction of the West Memphis 3.”
“As a filmmaker you are always asking yourself is my work meaningful? Is it relevant?” Sinofsky adds. “To have this kind of an outcome is more than a filmmaker could ask for.”

“Pina”
Director: Wim Wenders
Germany-France, Sundance Selects
Wenders’ 3D performance spectacle celebrates the works of renowned choreographer Pina Bausch.
“I’ve been wanting to make this film for 20 years, but I didn’t think I had the right tools to approach it. It was really just wishful thinking until 3D showed up. Only then did I realize that I could finally do it. Pina and I developed the project together, but shortly before we started shooting she passed away. So when I finally did start to shoot, I felt like she was constantly looking over my shoulder.”

“Project Nim”
Director: James Marsh
U.K., Roadside Attractions/HBO Documentary Films
Marsh explores the historic experiment to try to teach a chimpanzee language while raising the primate like a human child.
“(I knew) making a film about a deceased primate who couldn’t be interviewed was going to be difficult. Nim had many friends and antagonists in the human world, so trying to process all the testimony I got from the many people who knew him was quite difficult to organize into a flowing, efficient narrative. I also began to get really intrigued by the relationships and love affairs amongst the people themselves — what kind of behavior we showed as a species in the presence of a chimpanzee. Getting the balance right between Nim’s story and the relationships he stimulated around him was tricky.”

“Semper Fi: Always Faithful”
Directors: Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert
U.S., Tied to the Tracks Films
Hardmon and Libert follow career Marine Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger as he learns that the corps’ negligence caused his 9-year-old daughter’s death from leukemia and the military hushed up decades-long toxic contamination at Camp Lejeune.
“It was a daunting idea to follow someone taking on the United States government and the Department of Defense,” Libert says. “There is a certain moment when you worry about whether or not this person is going to achieve anything. The Department of Defense is a pretty formidable opponent. As filmmakers you want to feel like there is some sort of forward progression; otherwise, it would be a very frustrating experience. So there was a moment of trepidation, but he, in a way, Jerry encouraged us as filmmakers. We saw him never giving up, so how could we?”

“Sing Your Song”
Director: Susanne Rostock
U.S., HBO Documentary Films
Rostock looks at the life of singer, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte.
“The biggest challenge was how much story to tell and how to keep the film from lapsing into hagiography. Each chapter of his life could easily be a full-length feature. Miniseries cropped up many times, but the decision made was to create a feature-length documentary that would encompass this enormously complex life. Footage was tracked down from all over the world and from many forgotten resources hidden in attics and warehouses. Home movies were uncovered. We were relentless in our search to find every image needed to bring this story to life.”

“Undefeated”
Directors: Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin
U.S., The Weinstein Co.
Lindsay and Martin follow coach Bill Courtney and his young football players at an inner-city Memphis high school.
“Going into it, we initially didn’t want to make a sports films,” Martin says. “But we did go into knowing we wanted to make a very intimate, verite film.
“A football season gives you a natural dramatic narrative. There is going to be a beginning, middle and end. There is natural conflict in sports films. Who is going to win and who is going to lose? But in many ways this film is a coming-of-age story,” Lindsay says. “A human-interest piece.”

“Under Fire: Journalists in Combat”
Director: Martyn Burke
U.S.-Canada, Mercury Media
Burke examines the psychological and emotional toll taken on reporters covering wars.
“As a documentary filmmaker, who occasionally went off to film wars and conflicts, I met, and became friends with, several journalists who had spent too much time covering such events. They were all dedicated to their profession, but some became increasingly erratic. After learning what repeated trauma can do the human psyche, I felt I owed them. One of the biggest challenge was in properly portraying the psychological afflictions that can sometimes cut the emotional underpinnings out from under these tough and resilient war journalists, while at the same time getting across their belief that no one should dare consider them victims.”

“We Were Here”
Director: David Weissman
U.S., Red Flag Releasing
Weissman documents the coming of what was once called the “Gay Plague” in the early 1980s.
“The film very closely reflects my personal experience of living in San Francisco as a gay man, both before and during the darkest years of AIDS. The actual idea to make a film was suggested by a much younger boyfriend who had heard me speak often of what those times were like. It was emotionally challenging to re-visit what was a very difficult and painful time for me, and for my community. But it was also really empowering to feel ready to take this history on.”

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