Why Documentaries Deserve Below-the-Line Love

Louis Forbes was nominated for his music score of the 1953 “This Is Cinerama.” It was an Oscar first: A documentary nominated in a different category.
It took two decades for a recurrence: Gerald Fried was nominated for his “Birds Do It Bees Do It” doc music score. The 1994 “Hoop Dreams” achieved an Oscar oddity: It was nominated for editing (Frederick Marx, Steve James, William Haugse), but somehow was NOT nominated for documentary. Its omission caused an uproar, but that’s another story.

The point is that documentaries don’t just happen. A lot of talented people work hard in below-the-line categories — cinematography, editing, sound, music, etc. — to make the experience seem seamless.

Tracy Edwards, the remarkable British woman who’s at the center of Sony Classics’ “Maiden,” sings the praises of the doc’s director Alex Holmes and editor Katie Bryer.

She recently talked with Variety about the filmmakers’ two-year search for footage of the all-woman crew’s 1989 voyage. The trip, part of the around-the-world Whitbread Challenge race, was amazing. But so was the filmmaking process.

When Holmes approached her in 2015, Edwards told him that footage exists, but “I have no idea where it is.” Edwards also told him that at each stopover of the race, “We handed over all the footage to the organizers, and they gave it to news channels. So it spread to four corners of the Earth.”

It took Holmes two years to track it down. Edwards adds, “I had no idea that the editor was such a key part of the film process. Meeting Katie Bryer, and hearing her talk about cutting it, I was bowled over. Katie explained about finding different footage of the same interview to find the  best version.”

Edwards also praises the score of Rob Manning and  Samuel Sim. “That scene of the sunrise, when the music comes in, it’s exactly how we felt. I don’t know how they did that.”

CNN Films senior VP Courtney Sexton salutes the great documentaries being made. “Twenty years ago, people were shooting on film, which was expensive; now it’s a more democratic process, with access to equipment that people can afford.”

She praises “Apollo 11” director-editor Todd Douglas Miller. “Watching Todd was a masterclass in making a film — seeing his creative choices of finding the footage, finding audio and pairing it with the visual footage, as well as the editing. I hope people understand that a documentary doesn’t come out of thin air, it’s made and crafted.”

Since 1941, Oscar’s doc nominees have chronicled the history of the world, either by addressing current events (“Woodstock,” 1970; “The Times of Harvey Milk,” 1984, et al.) or by looking at the current world through the prism of the past. Both “Maiden” and “Apollo 11” fit into that category, following such 21st century predecessors as “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” (2000), “The Fog of War” (2003), “Man on Wire” (2008) and “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012).

So far, docs have earned some Oscar noms in the editing and music categories.

Next goals: directing, writing, cinematography, sound — and best picture.

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