The Best Picture shortlist for the upcoming Academy Awards recently set a record for its depth: 341 titles, revealing little about the expected contenders for film’s most-coveted prize. But just 10 films remain eligible for the Best Documentary Short Subject statuette, given to stories with runtimes of 40 minutes or less.
It’s the same category that made Netflix an Oscar winner this past February, for “The White Helmets,” directors Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara’s tribute to Syrian first responders. Netflix could claim the honor again with “Heroin(e),” but The New York Times Op-Docs team has a stronger showing on the shortlist, generating three of the films: “Ten Meter Tower,” “Alone,” and “116 Cameras.” Five nominees will ultimately be selected.
To expand on the success of its opinion model, the newspaper launched its Op-Docs series in November 2011. “The Op-Ed page is the place for writers and thinkers from outside The New York Times to give their opinions on issues of the day, and so Op-Docs was conceived as a place for filmmakers and artists basically to do the same thing,” said Op-Docs executive producer Kathleen Lingo, who joined the Times in 2013 after working as a freelance documentary producer, shooter, editor, and archival researcher. Lingo was hired by her predecessor, Jason Spingarn-Koff, now Netflix’s director of original documentary programming.
Among the first Op-Docs was “The Umbrella Man” by Errol Morris, a six-minute look at a debunked Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory behind the Zapruder film’s lone umbrella-carrier. Morris won a 2004 Oscar for his feature-length documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara,” and has now completed eight Op-Docs (his recent, six-part Netflix hybrid-documentary, “Wormwood,” was deemed ineligible for the 2018 Best Documentary Feature gold).
Additional Oscar-winning Op-Docs contributors include such big names as Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) and Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”).
Op-Docs releases about 40 films annually, some by directors who’ve toiled on them for as long as two years. Projects are acquired at various stages of production, from paper pitches to final cuts; all selections benefit from Times input and fact-checking. The series has become an increasingly award-season viable in recent years: “4.1 Miles” lost to “The White Helmets” at the 2017 Oscars, and “My Enemy, My Brother” was previously shortlisted in 2015. “A Short History of the Highrise” won a 2014 News and Documentary Emmy Award, and three more titles were nominated this year (“4.1 Miles,” “The Click Effect,” and “The Voter Suppression Trail”).
IndieWire spoke to the directors of the three current Op-Docs Oscar hopefuls.
“Ten Meter Tower”
Directors: Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson of Gothenburg, Sweden
Production company: Plattform Produktion
Running time: 16 minutes
How long it took to make: They began thinking about the idea in 2012. Shooting took place over three days, and editing lasted two months.
Op-Docs release date: January 30
Festival history: Premiered at Sweden’s Göteborg Film Festival. “Ten Meter Tower” received funding from the Sundance Institute, and screened at the Sundance Film Festival, which has a collaboration with Op-Docs (so programmers brought it to the attention of the Times). Other festival appearances include Berlinale Shorts, the Hamptons International Film Festival, The Chicago Critics Film Festival, and more.
While taking a class at the University of Gothenburg’s film school, Van Aertryck met Danielson, a guest teacher. They’ve been collaborating since 2013; “Ten Meter Tower” is their fifth film and the most-watched Op-Doc of 2017.
The duo challenged themselves to build a film around a single, attention-sustaining image. Partly inspired by a 109-second YouTube clip called “Girls first Ski Jump” (sic), they used online advertising to cast 67 Swedish men and women of various races, sizes, and ages (12 to 78) who had never leapt from a 10-meter (33-foot) high dive, a standard feature of public pools in less-lawsuit-phobic Europe. Each participant was paid approximately $30, and instructed to climb up the ladder and wait two minutes before jumping, as 70 percent of their subjects ultimately did.
“It’s a rigged situation where everybody knows exactly what’s going on,” laughed Van Aertryck. Some of their microphones and six cameras are in the frame for the sake of transparency. “They truly conceived of it as a psychological experimental film,” said Lingo. “Some filmmakers love it and think it’s so creative, and other filmmakers feel like it’s more of a gimmick.”
Danielson said they sought to capture the dilemma between “two instincts have shaped us as human beings”: “to be cautious when you’re entering something that’s really dangerous,” and defying naysayers. “Our interest was in catching with a camera the part where the people are undecided, and the body is expressing what is going on in the head,” he explained.
The universal fear of heights and inherent vulnerability of wearing bathing suits made the film relatable and gripping. “The human body in film is so exploited or sexualized, it’s like a norm,” said Danielson. He and Van Aertryck worked to test “what a hero could look like,” where audiences “wouldn’t judge the bodies.”
“There is so much polarization in the politics and there’s so much populism that tries to divide us and tries to say that we’re different, we wanted to make a film that said no, we’re not,” said Danielson.