Getting out early can be an advantage in the documentary race, which is often front loaded at January’s Sundance Film Festival. While a raft of movies made their mark, the question is which ones can sustain support through the end of the year.
Among that festival’s breakouts were three Syria documentaries. Daring and timely “City of Ghosts” (July 14, A & E/Amazon Studios), which is Matthew Heineman’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated border drug war thriller “Cartel Land,” is leading the pack. Any footage from Syria came from the fearless Raqqa journalists he tracked through Turkey and Germany, where they discover that they are not necessarily safe — anywhere.
Courtesy of Our Time Projects
It remains to be seen if there will be room for more than one Syrian documentary. HBO Documentary Films is forgoing Emmy consideration for “Winter on Fire” nominee Evgeny Afineevsky’s harrowing “Cries From Syria” (March 10, HBO) in favor of a fall Oscar push. It could be tough for Firas Fayyad and Steen Johannessen’s “Last Men in Aleppo” (Grasshopper Film), which took home the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury prize, to compete with both Amazon and HBO.
While the U.S. documentary Grand Jury Award went to Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles’ unconventional love story “Dina” (October 3, The Orchard), an Asperger romance about suburbanite Dina Buno and Walmart door greeter Scott Levin, historically this award does not necessarily lead to an Oscar nod. Also grabbing festival attention was Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis’ Black Lives Matter/Ferguson documentary “Whose Streets?” (August 11, Magnolia Pictures).
Fox Searchlight’s big Sundance buy, uncharacteristically, was Amanda Lipitz’s dance crowdpleaser “Step” (August 4), which documents the senior year of an inner-city Baltimore girls’ high school. (Searchlight doesn’t usually release documentaries, but also bought remake rights.) They will mount a push for the Special Jury Prize winner for “inspirational filmmaking.”
Courtesy of Sundance
Before Sundance, Amazon also acquired popular festival hit “Long Strange Trip,” Amir Bar-Lev’s exhaustive trek into the Grateful Dead archives, which yielded a four-hour opus that is especially entertaining for Dead Heads of all stripes, from the Haight-Ashbury and Working Man’s Dead through the obsessive concert tape-collector eras.
While there was some debate about whether the massive band portrait would qualify under new rigorous Oscar rules about episodic television, the movie screened all four hours at Sundance and opened theatrically as a movie on May 26, followed by streaming on Amazon Prime on June 2 in six parts. So it’s eligible for the Oscar. After all, the Academy branch did nominate controversial ESPN seven-hour documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” which won the Oscar — and led to the rule change.
Courtesy of Sundance
Paramount and Participant made a Sundance splash with “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk’s sequel to Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning Al Gore climate-change documentary. In the post-Trump era, Gore has not given up the fight — and has relentlessly kept pushing his message via the film — and while there may be resistance to this well-financed agit-prop call to action, some in the Academy documentary branch may want to send a message of their own.
Academy governor Rory Kennedy (nominated for “Last Days in Vietnam”) is a popular documentarian whose visceral iconic surfer portrait “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton” (September 29, Sundance Selects) played well at Sundance. She is taken seriously by her colleagues.
The Netflix Factor
Netflix is an astute buyer and producer of top-flight documentaries and knows how to campaign for them. After nabbing Oscar nominations for five features and two shorts since 2013, the streaming site won its first Oscar in February for Syria short “White Helmets.” This year, their challenge is to pick the frontrunners among some 10 viable candidates.
Netflix scooped up U.S. Documentary audience-award-winner “Chasing Coral,” a heartrending, eye-popping follow-up to Jeff Orlowski’s “Chasing Ice,” similarly documenting the technological feats required to go underwater to film the process of vivid live coral reefs succumbing to warm-water temperatures. Netflix and the “Chasing Coral” team are also engaged in an all-out social action campaign.
Also building buzz out of Sundance was African-American transgender filmmaker Yance Ford’s “Strong Island,” which won a Special Jury Prize for Storytelling for this deeply emotional, in-your-face docu-memoir about the murder of his beloved brother by a Long Island white man. Ford walks us through his family history and dives into a procedural investigation into the homicide, trying to understand why his brother’s killer was never charged.
Netflix’s $5-million Sundance pickup “Icarus” is from marathon biker Bryan Fogel, who stumbled upon a riveting global scoop: the Russian Olympic doping scandal. The twisty documentary earned raves. Netflix is also releasing Kitty Green’s well-received Sundance beauty-contest expose “Casting JonBenet” and Brian Knappenberger’s chilling freedom of speech expose “Nobody Speak.”
Also delving into the Syria landscape is Tribeca debut “Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” (June 11, National Geographic), which reunites producer Nick Quested and writer-director Sebastian Junger (Oscar-nominated war classic “Restrepo” and sequel “Korengal”), who try to create a comprehensible timeline for the ongoing human disaster in Syria. They succeed, with help from go-to documentary writer Mark Monroe (“The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years”). Junger and Quested dug into extensive archive and on-site research in Syria and gave a Syrian family who were trying to escape from war-torn Aleppo a video camera, which captured amazing footage of the family cowering from bombings, smuggling out to refugee camps, and attempting to escape to Europe by boat.
This spring’s Tribeca Grand Jury Prize winner, “Bobbi Jene” (Oscilloscope), Swedish fimmaker Elvira Lind’s intimate, moving portrait of a gutsy Israeli modern dancer struggling to balance her life and her art, also took home cinematography and editing jury prizes.
Also opting to take the Oscar over Emmy route is Oscar-winning screenwriter (“12 Years a Slave”) and “American Crime” showrunner John Ridley, whose powerful L.A. riot documentary “Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992” opened in theaters April 21, followed by ABC’s 88-minute version on April 28. The documentary branch could be put off by its television roots, but should watch the thoughtful and emotional long feature, the best of the anniversary flood of documentaries.
If the documentary branch follows its tendency to not return to its most-lauded Oscar-winners, from Errol Morris to Alex Gibney, they may also overlook well-reviewed Julian Assange portrait “Risk” (May 5, Neon, Showtime) cerebral filmmaker Laura Poitras’ follow-up to her demanding Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary “Citizenfour.”
This time over six years she got up close and personal with the controversial WikiLeaks founder, who assumes disguises, burns papers, and winds up hiding at the Ecuadorian embassy in London. After debuting 25 minutes at the New York Film Festival in 2015, Poitras and her editors structured the movie around a long central interview in which Assange revealed his shifting philosophy, which played at Cannes in Directors Fortnight 2016. That version went back to the editing room, as Poitras caught up to Assange’s role in the election of Donald Trump and dumping hacked documents from the Democratic National Committee, likely acting at the behest of Russia. Some doc branch members may want to compare the Assange film to the Snowden, but the two films are very different.
And will the documentarians give “Fog of War” Oscar-winner Errol Morris credit for “The B-Side” (June 30, Neon), his intimate portrait of giant Polaroid portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman? The movie has charmed audiences on the festival circuit since Toronto.
After Cannes, jumping to the front of the Oscar line was “Faces Places” (Cohen Media), 88-year-old filmmaker Agnes Varda’s heart-tugging pop-up road movie documentary, co-directed with artist JR, which came out of the festival surrounded by love and valentines and a Best Documentary jury prize. Varda is at the top of her game, even if she’s going blind and leaning on a cane. The aging Academy is responding — the board of governors awarded her an Honorary Oscar — to this love letter to the creative spirit, which scored big on the fall festival circuit, winning Toronto’s documentary audience award.
Other documentaries building respect include long overdue documentarian Steve James’ “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” (May 19, PBS), which has grown in stature on the festival circuit since its TIFF 2016 debut; innovative Turkish cat documentary sleeper hit “Kedi,” (February 10, Oscilloscope); “The Waiting Room” director Peter Nicks’ portrait of the Oakland police, “The Force,” (September 15, Kino Lorber); and Ai Weiwei’s immigrant crisis expose “Human Flow” (Participant/Magnolia).
At Toronto, “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” director Brett Morgen delivered a stunning achievement with “Jane” (October 20, NatGeo), by merging new interviews with animal advocate Jane Goodall with gorgeous archive footage of her early years in Africa — revealing a budding romance –as she was getting to know a tribe of chimpanzees who became her life’s work.
Another TIFF doc that gained awards momentum is Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “One of Us,” Netflix’s story of three young New Yorkers who struggle to escape their oppressive Hasidic community. At TIFF, Netflix also acquired Chris Smith’s Jim Carrey documentary, “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton.”
Here’s the list of (alphabetical) Oscar contenders. No film will be deemed a frontrunner until I have seen it.
“City of Ghosts”
“One of Us”
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”
“Arthur Miller: Writer”
“Cries from Syria”
“The Final Year”
“Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis”
“An Inconvenient Sequel”
“Dawson City: Frozen Time”
“Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton”
“Last Men in Aleppo”
“Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992”
“Long Strange Trip”
“Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press”
“Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton”