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, only a few could sustain support through the end of the year.
Among that festival’s breakouts were three Syria documentaries, but only one made it to the final five. The Academy documentary branch went with Firas Fayyad and Steen Johannessen’s “Last Men in Aleppo” (Grasshopper Film), which took home the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury prize. Politics are playing a role, as the Trump Muslim travel ban blocked some of the team from attending.
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.” 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 and directly impacted Russian athletes’ participation in this year’s Olympics.
Building buzz out of Sundance was African-American transgender filmmaker Yance Ford’s deeply emotional, in-your-face docu-memoir “Strong Island,” which won a Special Jury Prize for Storytelling. Ford walks us through his family history and dives into a procedural investigation into the murder of his beloved brother by a Long Island white man, trying to understand why his brother’s killer was never charged.
Long overdue documentarian Steve James’ “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” (May 19, PBS) grew in stature on the festival circuit after its TIFF 2016 debut.
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 responded — 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.
“Last Men in Aleppo”
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail”