Days after the White House press secretary shared doctored footage to justify restricting a journalist’s access, the annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards took on a more charged tenor than usual.
“Remember truth? That little thing that’s the foundation of civilization?” Robert De Niro asked wistfully, drawing laughs from the audience who’d gathered at the BRIC in Brooklyn on Saturday for the gala.
“We live in a time of fiction and lies, so that makes this all the more important. People who make documentary films — it’s a critical job that needs to be done,” Michael Moore, whom De Niro presented with the Critics’ Choice Lifetime Achievement Award, told Variety ahead of the event. “I think we all have to be focused on removing what’s going on in Washington DC and fixing the country right now. I know that’s my personal commitment as a citizen and a filmmaker.”
Unsurprisingly, others on the carpet shared his passion for fact-based filmmaking. “I’ve always felt like the best stories are non-fiction, and I love the idea of being able to shape a narrative with the fundamentals of reality and truth,” Rashida Jones, who won best music documentary with her co-director Alan Hicks for “Quincy” (a doc about her father Quincy Jones), told Variety. “What’s great about documentaries is even if you know nothing about the subject matter, if it’s a great film, you will care about the subject, whether it’s a person or an event or a moment in history —it forces you to care.”
That quality is particularly important to Jones in the current political climate. “We have a bit of a two-story narrative happening in this country, and it’s really about access to the truth and what your truth is and the fact that it’s slightly subjective at the moment,” she explained. “I’m hoping that as we start to see stories and hear the voices of more people, it will allow people who don’t have access to those stories to feel empathy and consideration and tolerance for people who are not them,” she said.
This week’s elections have given her a reason to be optimistic. “I’m so happy to see what happened – which is that we have so many women in office, and we have better representation of what this country actually is.”
Jones has a history of campaigning for Democratic presidential candidates, from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. So, are there any 2020 hopefuls she’s particularly excited about? “All the candidates that emerged this year – Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, Beto O’Rourke, and you know, Kamala Harris – there’s a lot of great leaders in the party,” she said. “And I’m counting on the younger people to take over from the old guard. So, we’ll see!”
She wasn’t the only one with midterm results on the mind. “312 districts went blue,” Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, co-director of “Free Solo,” announced as she introduced the contenders for best political documentary. “We’ve had 35 new Democrats [in the House of Representatives], most all of them women — two are Muslim, which is awesome, and the first Native American. This has been a few really, really difficult years, and what happened on Tuesday is amazing and also just shows how important political documentaries are.”
The makers of “RBG,” which went on to win the category, clearly felt the same. “We wanted people to really learn something, to come to an understanding of something that women faced in America just a few decades ago, and the role that Justice Ginsburg as a young lawyer played in changing all that,” said Betsy West, who directed the bio-doc alongside Julie Cohen.
“It’s really exciting to see the intergenerational nature of the appreciation,” Cohen added. “You have older women who understand what Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced in her life, you have millennial women who think she’s the notorious RBG, and then you have little girls who come dressed up as Justice Ginsburg – seven, eight, nine years old. They really identify with this teeny, 85-year-old woman who is very powerful in their minds, and somebody who is a role model for little girls for her intellect.”
Morgan Neville was similarly inspired by the subjects of both of his recent documentaries, Fred Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and Orson Welles in “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.” Working on the two projects “was vastly different – and they’re vastly different characters,” he told Variety. “But the similarity is they’re both people who didn’t care what was popular or what other people thought was important. So, they’re mavericks in their own way. And they were both heroes of mine at different times in my life.”
Though Neville idolized Welles as a filmmaker, Rogers’ ideology was the one that felt most urgent to him in 2018. “The Fred Rogers film was just me trying to connect with a message that I felt was absent from our culture today, which is how we actually are going to move forward as a community, as a society, which is essentially what he’s talking about on that show.”
In his work and in life, Neville keeps coming back to the idea of civil discourse: “I think we’ve built our culture in a way that actually incentivizes incivility. It’s how we get votes, it’s how we get eyeballs – by demonizing others and fearmongering. And I think that toxicity is ultimately gonna kill us unless we do something about it.”
For Neville, winning both best documentary and best director on the same night as Moore received the Lifetime Achievement Award carried special significance. “‘Roger and Me’ opened in the fall of 1989. I was working as a journalist in San Francisco, and it opened on two screens — one in New York and one in LA,” he explained. “And my roommate and I so wanted to see it, we got into a car, drove to LA, saw a matinee, and drove home. It was a 12-hour round trip to see the film, and it meant a huge deal to me.” That screening of Moore’s first feature set Neville on the path to becoming an Academy Award-winning documentarian in his own right.
The evening was also a full circle moment for Moore himself: he took the opportunity to finish his 2003 Oscars acceptance speech for “Bowling for Columbine,” for which he was famously booed off stage after criticizing Pres. George W. Bush and declaring that “we live in fictitious times … where we have fictitious election results that elect a fictitious president.”
Fifteen years later, he was able to reveal how the speech was supposed to end:
“So, before I close, I want to say a few words about nonfiction and how to use it as a cure for the many lies we are being told and as a nonviolent weapon of revolution and change. I have read over the years that my first movie, ‘Roger and Me,’ kicked open the doors for documentary films – the first documentary to be widely distributed to shopping mall cinemas and multiplexes of America. The Academy, though, has not let me in as a member for 13 long years, not until just last month. I had heard all the reasons why. ‘Roger and Me,’ it’s not a documentary. ‘Roger and Me,’ documentaries are not supposed to be entertainment. You’re using your frivolous humor, and it lessens the seriousness and the impact of what you’re trying to say. Those of us from the now-dead factory towns of the Rust Belt, who, like me, have just a high school education – we from the working class immediately know the class-based tone of those who speak to us, those who went to the finer schools or even any school at all. I encourage anyone watching at home tonight in the Gary, Indianas of America, in the Camden, New Jerseys, in the San Ysidros, in the East St. Louises, and yes, the Flints and Detroits and the Pontiacs and the Dearborns, to pick up a camera and fight the power. Make your voice heard and stop this senseless war.”
Moore felt strongly that the call to action was just as relevant today. “We are not only still at war, but we have a president who has declared war on our democracy and war on us,” he said. “Keep picking up those cameras, everyone here in this room, because the people gathered here tonight, you may be America’s last line of defense — and hopefully the first line of rebuilding this country that he is currently destroying.”
The full list of the 2018 Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards is below:
BEST DOCUMENTARY: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Director: Morgan Neville (Focus Features)
BEST LIMITED DOCUMENTARY SERIES: The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (HBO)
BEST ONGOING DOCUMENTARY SERIES: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN)
BEST DIRECTOR: Morgan Neville – Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Focus Features)
BEST FIRST TIME DIRECTOR: Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster – Science Fair (National Geographic Documentary Films) and Bing Liu – Minding the Gap (Hulu)
BEST POLITICAL DOCUMENTARY: RBG – Directors: Julie Cohen, Betsy West (Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media)
BEST SPORTS DOCUMENTARY: Free Solo – Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (National Geographic Documentary Film)
BEST MUSIC DOCUMENTARY: Quincy – Directors: Alan Hicks, Rashida Jones (Netflix)
MOST INNOVATIVE DOCUMENTARY: Free Solo – Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (National Geographic Documentary Film)
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Free Solo – Cinematographers: Jimmy Chin, Clair Popkin, Mikey Schaefer (National Geographic Documentary Films)
BEST EDITING: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Editors: Jeff Malmberg, Aaron Wickenden (Focus Features)