An hour after the Oscars ended, I stood next to a man who wouldn’t have won an award even the movie he worked on did. One of the anonymous Indonesian collaborators on "The Look of Silence," which finds a young man confronting perpetrators of his country’s genocide, he worked closely with the Copenhagen-based director Joshua Oppenheimer. His colleague would face blowback from his government if he were associated with the film, and so he wasn’t credited by name.
We were standing outside Los Angeles restaurant, near the valet and a nest of post-Oscars paparazzi; the man committed to exposing his country’s sins through cinema looked distinctly out of place. But he also seemed happy to be there. He beamed about the popularity of his work throughout Indonesia. Although police found ways to cancel some 10% of the screenings throughout the country, plenty of people still got to see it. "That’s still pretty good," he said.
Complaints about Hollywood’s diversity problems are valid, but they’re a superficial look at a broader challenge: Since the Oscars represent Hollywood’s attempt to present an ideal version of itself, it can never offer a complete picture of the movies, or the people who battle to make something different.
To the extent that the Oscars reward creative ambition, they remain within a familiar playing field. Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s second win in a row, for the reckless abandon he brought to making "The Revenant," spoke to the effectiveness of publicizing a difficult shoot. That said, the Oscars couldn’t find room for Jacques Rivette in the Academy’s "In Memoriam" tribute — a filmmaker whose entire career was built around fresh narrative experimentation. (Mercifully, the late Chantal Ackerman was acknowledged.)
The Oscars tell a flimsy story of global cinema, and by extension, the world. #OscarsSoWhite, meet #OscarsSoNarrow.
Issues of diversity dominated the scene leading up to the ceremony. At a pre-Oscar cocktail party hosted by the nonprofit Women in Film, nominees such as Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jennifer Lawrence rubbed shoulders with last year’s supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette, who delivered an impassioned speech about equal pay for women that included a savvy jab at Antonin Scalia. Women in Film executive director Kirsten Schaffer spoke forcefully about their drive to fix the industry, noting that only 11% of movies produced in 2015 were made by women.
"We can do better," she said. "We are going to work with our partners throughout Hollywood and rid ourselves of biases… Finally, once and for all, we’ll make a change forever."
Elsewhere in the room, a more complicated picture came together, one in which diverse filmmakers either toiled within limited options or worked steadily beyond the industry’s constraints.
In one corner was Kimberly Pierce, the "Boys Don’t Cry" director who hasn’t made a movie since a poorly received "Carrie" remake in 2013. Nearby, Plan B executive Jeremy Kleiner spoke excitedly about his company’s upcoming collaboration with Barry Jenkins, the African-American director of "Medicine for Melancholy," who hasn’t completed a movie in eight years. Veteran producer Christine Vachon expressed her enthusiasm for Janicza Bravo, a young black woman whose short film "Woman in Deep" will soon premiere at the SXSW Film Festival; Vachon planned to produce Bravo’s next feature. Outside was Mira Nair, in postproduction on the Ugandan chess competition drama "Queen of Katwe."
But one of the two woman filmmakers nominated for an Oscar in the feature film race this year — along with "What Happened, Miss Simone?" documentarian Liz Garbus — the Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, wasn’t even there. Still in France for the Cesar awards, Ergüven represents a much larger arena for filmmaking than anything squeezed into a single speech about Hollywood. Her nomination this year never led the headlines about the Oscars’ diversity problem, not because she didn’t provide an alternative but because she wasn’t part of the club.
The Oscars’ narrative speaks to a restricted mindset. Rock’s best segment during Sunday night’s telecast, in which he interviewed black moviegoers in Compton who had never heard of "Spotlight" or "Bridge of Spies," spoke directly to the industry’s inward-looking tendencies. No matter their dominance on the global stage, the Oscars represent just one insular slice of the cultural equation.
That narrow perspective extends to the Hollywood scene itself. A Friday night Oscar party hosted by United Talent Agency chairman Jim Berkus felt like a self-contained universe. Channing Tatum stood near the door and showed off the tap-dance moves he learned while shooting "Hail, Caesar!"; outside, hotshot producers ranging from Joel Silver to Judd Apatow mingled on a makeshift deck built on top of Berkus’ pool. But then I ran into someone who looked a little out of place.
Two years ago, German director Anja Marquardt made her debut with the perceptive drama "She’s Lost Control," an eerie look at the experiences of a sex surrogate who gets too invested in her work. Both perceptive and viscerally unnerving, "She’s Lost Control" showcased Marquardt’s unique ability to convey otherworldly qualities without negating her character’s intimate struggle. Having signed with UTA, Marquardt has yet to announce her next project. So there she was at the UTA party, possibly on the hunt for some future collaborators. Spending a few months in Los Angeles developing her project, Marquardt wasn’t looking for a big opportunity to sell out, no matter how much the industry clamored for it. She shrugged off the pressure to tackle some franchise simply for the sake of rising through the ranks. "You don’t have to take that crap," she said. "You can just walk away."
Later, she clarified. "I do have mixed feelings about the pursuit in general," she said, but wouldn’t be averse to juggling a massive commercial property, should someone see her as the right fit. "I would absolutely take the bull by the horns if the stars aligned," she said.
A few feet away, a grinning Seth Rogen embraced Chris Rock, who steadily made his way through the party while remaining low key. Rogen had no plans to attend the Oscars. "I just don’t give a shit," he chuckled after Rock walked away. On his way out the door, Rock briefly crossed paths with Laszlo Nemes, the Hungarian director of "Son of Saul," which would eventually win best foreign-language film. "Uh, your movie’s great," Rock said as he headed to his car.
Nemes, like Marquart, wants to stick to his own material. Even as he’s signed with UTA, he plans to shoot another movie in Hungary soon. Nevertheless, the agency fires off scripts to him at a constant rate. "I don’t read the things they send me," he said. "I don’t need to."
Even in the lobby of the Dolby Theatre on Sunday, nominees grappled with the distinction between the awards’ allure and their own priorities. On the smoking deck, I ran into veteran publicist Jeff Hill and "Carol" screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, who struck a sensible note. The exhausting trail of Oscar campaigning, she said, "is just part of all this. You either work with it or you’re miserable."
Then there was Duke Johnson, the young animator who co-directed the stop-motion marvel "Anomalisa" with Charlie Kaufman. Nominated for best animated feature in a category pre-ordained for "Inside Out," Johnson was still wrapping his head around the universe of possibilities thrust in front of him since his movie surfaced on the festival circuit last fall. "There is so much nonsense in this industry," he said. "And yet, I still want an Oscar. I do." (It was a familiar sentiment. Last year, I spent the whole evening hanging out with the losers.)
Inside the theater, my colleague Anne Thompson and I took our seats in the second mezzanine, where we ran into Vachon. "This is what six nominations get you," she said, before heading to the bar at the first commercial break, never to return. Yet while "Carol" was shut out Sunday, there was a significant bright spot in the large volume of wins by "Mad Max" in below-the-line categories, including many roles that went to women (one of which was best editing, by director George Miller’s wife, Margaret Sixel).
Best actress winner Brie Larson’s acceptance speech for her ferocious turn as a committed mother in "Room" hinted at a broader world, opening with an acknowledgement of film festivals and distributor A24. One floor down, I ran into A24 executive Heath Shapiro, who said his highlight from the past year had less to do with the company’s first set of Oscar nominations than the successful wider release of the audacious horror movie "The Witch."
Then, the A24-released British sci-fi thriller "Ex Machina" surprised everyone with a win for Best Visual Effects, and Shapiro beamed at his company’s first mention at the Academy Awards. A few minutes later, A24’s"Amy" won best documentary. The Oscars provided a reason to celebrate for the people who fought their way in.
Nobody felt more vindicated by that battle than the team behind "Spotlight," a best picture winner that most pundits assumed to be an also-ran. At a boisterous after party hosted by distributor Open Road, a crowd cheered each of the movie’s big winners as they made their way through the door. For that smartly written drama about a team of Boston journalists exposing sexual abuse in the Catholic church, the Oscar game was well worth the months of investment.
A few miles away, documentarian Matthew Heineman came down to earth. Swept up in campaign whirlwind for his engrossing Mexican drug cartel portrait "Cartel Land," Heineman still carried around a laminated acceptance speech he never got the chance to deliver. It included his galvanizing call for further awareness of the drug war’s violent reverberations. But he admitted that, moments before he lost to "Amy," his mind went elsewhere. Watching the clips from his fellow nominees, he said he found himself only thinking, "Man, I really want to watch all of these movies."
Oppenheimer found his own method of dealing with loss. Riding to his film’s dinner party, he spoke with Adi Rukun, the subject of his film who suffered through the reverberations of the Indonesian genocide. "Adi said, ‘My brother was killed and I had to eat wood chips as a child to survive,’" Oppenheimer recalled. "That put things in perspective."
Oppenheimer’s collaborator looked particularly content as he hinted at the possibility of a third installment in the duo’s reckoning with his country’s long-suppressed history. But he had no plans to publicly reveal his identity. "They won’t kill me, but I might get a stone through my window," he said.
Losing an Oscar was the least of his concerns. "It’s a show," he said. "The kind of movies we make…" He trailed off, as the flash of photographers by the entrance lit up the night. Finally, he collected himself. "The kind of movies we make," he said, "aren’t for shows like this."