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Oscar Documentary Race Pits Youth vs. Experience

The Academy’s documentary branch has proven once again that it is made up of a consistently unpredictable bunch, particularly keen on spreading the love.

After narrowing down a record-breaking 170 eligible features to a remarkably strong shortlist of 15 docs, the nonfiction branch whittled down that batch to five nominees: “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” “Faces Places,” “Icarus,” “Last Men in Aleppo” and “Strong Island.”

It’s a quintuple of powerful films from six formidable helmers. It’s also a list that is notably missing two high-profile, high-pedigree critical favorites: Brett Morgen’s “Jane” and Matthew Heineman’s “City of Ghosts.” Both docus were preferred by critics, industry groups and nonfiction orgs who were alike in singing their praises.

Morgen’s “Jane” made a splash when it premiered last September at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival. Before the shortlist was announced, Morgen had already taken top honors at the second annual Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards. The Jane Goodall biopic went on to garner a PGA kudo, a slew of critics’ honors including the National Board of Review award and two Cinema Eye trophies for audience choice and score. Most recently the veteran director picked up a BAFTA nomination alongside Heineman. The “City of Ghosts” helmer has won an IDA prize and was nominated for a DGA.

Unlike this year’s six nominated directors, Morgen and Heineman are previous documentary feature Academy Award nominees. Morgen for “On the Ropes” (1999) and Heineman for “Cartel Land” (2015).

Shockingly, two of this year’s nominees — veteran filmmakers Steve James (“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”) and Agnes Varda (“Faces Places”) — have never received a nomination in the category. James’ seminal docu, “Hoop Dreams” was infamously snubbed in 1994. Since then the Academy’s nonfiction branch has consistently given James the cold shoulder, most recently in 2015 for his Roger Ebert pic, “Life Itself.” (James was nominated in 1995 in the film editing category for “Hoop Dreams” while Varda garnered an Honorary Oscar for her body of work in November at the Governors Awards.)

As for the four remaining nominees — JR (“Faces Places” co-director), Bryan Fogel (“Icarus”), Feras Fayyad (“Last Men in Aleppo”) and Yance Ford (“Strong Island”) — they are far from documentary veterans. While JR and Fayyad have directed feature and television docs respectively, Fogel and Ford are first-time nonfiction filmmakers. The foursome’s catapult from few or no credits to Oscar nominee is not a new or, for that matter, surprising phenomenon. In fact, the doc branch has a fondness for newcomers.
In the past decade more than 20 first-time feature docu helmers have nabbed an Oscar nom. They include Ellen Kuras (“The Betrayal — Nerakhoon”), Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington (“Restrepo”), Charles Ferguson (“No End in Sight”) and John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (“Finding Vivian Maier”).

And when it comes time for the Little Gold Man, oddly enough, being a green documentary filmmaker gives you a leg up.

In the past two decades, 12 directors have taken home the Academy Award for their first documentary theatrical feature. They include Ezra Edelman (“O.J.: Made in America”), Louie Psihoyos (“The Cove”) and Malik Bendjelloul (“Searching for Sugarman”). Those films beat out docus made by veteran nonfiction helmers including Kirby Dick (“The Invisible War”), Wim Wenders (“Pina”) and Oscar-winner Roger Ross Williams (“Life Animated”).

But unlike past ceremonies when Edelman’s “O.J.,” Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour” and Bendjelloul’s “Sugarman” were shoo-ins, there is no category frontrunner this year. Each director has a real shot at Oscar gold.

While “Faces Places” is the highest-recorded grossing film of the quintet with just $722,000, the film about Varda and muralist JR’s journey across rural France has garnered some of the most prestigious doc industry prizes. So far the film has taken home Cannes’ Golden Eye Documentary prize, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. kudo, the New York Film Critics Circle award and recently scored an Independent Spirit nomination.

Joining Varda and JR at the Indie Spirits will be “Last Men in Aleppo” director, Fayyad. The Syrian filmmaker’s harrowing, immersive war-zone study has triumphed at film festivals worldwide. Two months after scooping the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance’s world documentary competition, the film won at CPH:DOX, Copenhagen’s eminent all-doc festival. The doc also garnered an award at Full Frame, one of North America’s most prestigious nonfiction film festivals.

Ford, a fellow Full Frame winner, has also won his fair share of hardware for “Strong Island,” which examines the 1992 killing of Ford’s brother and the effect it had on the filmmaker and his family. The film took top honors at the Gotham Awards. (In 2014 and 2016, the Gotham-winning films “Citizenfour” and “O.J.: Made in America” went on to win the Oscar.) Ford also made history when he won three awards including direction, debut and nonfiction feature film at the Cinema Eye Awards.

“Icarus,” Fogel’s timely Russian doping exposel, also took home a Cinema Eye honor. The film has also received BAFTA and DGA nods. James also picked up a DGA nomination for “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” and collected a Critics’ Choice Documentary kudo for the Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary. About a Chinatown bank indicted for fraud, “Abacus” is James’ ninth feature length documentary.

But in spite of capturing the hearts and minds of the documentary branch, will “Abacus,” “Faces Places” and “Last Men in Aleppo” distributors be able to complete with the behemoth that is Netflix? After all, PBS Distribution (“Abacus”), Cohen Media Group (“Faces Places”) and Grasshopper Films (“Aleppo”) aren’t exactly known for their lavish Oscar campaigns.

And with Amazon out of the game, Netflix is poised to become the category’s biggest campaign spender. (Good news for “Icarus” and “Strong Island.”) But despite all of the cash Netflix has thrown at the race in past year, so far, it has yet to win the category.
So while the streamer certainly has the firepower, it’s anyone’s guess if they will hit the intended target.

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