By Kevin Knoblock
The day before the nominations for the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature I thought three films were a lock – Tim’s Vermeer, Blackfish and Stories We Tell. But all three got overlooked.
In the past, the documentary branch of the A.M.P.A.S. (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) has been known for a more than occasional controversy, whether for its complicated nomination process or in its selections. This year, however, there was a bounty of excellent documentary feature films.
Consequently, some excellent work got squeezed out or ‘snubbed’, an overused and lazy way to analyze the nominations. Did Blackfish get snubbed by the Academy’s Documentary wing after it ran repeatedly on CNN. Who knows?
I tell my students in my full-day Documentary Film Class workshops that the best documentary filmmakers don’t just find great stories. They also have unique access to these stories, which often involves months or years of planning. And finally, they execute, adding their personal aesthetic and storytelling technique.
Let’s take a look at what the Academy did nominate for the 86th Academy Awards. It’s a great roster that represents the best from the non-fiction filmmaking community.
Cutie and the Boxer
Cutie and the Boxer, directed by Zachary Heinzerling, is a fascinating look at the creative process, and of a marriage, featuring Japanese artists Noriko and Ushio Shinohara. Watching 80 year-old Noriko strip to the waist and use boxing gloves to apply paint to canvas is a wonder to behold. Then we see his backstory – the struggling artist, alcoholic, and sometimes bullying husband to Ushio, conveyed through home movies and animated samples from Ushio’s comic strip stories of her creation, Cutie. We see a couple nearing the end of their journey. It’s insightful and often heartbreaking.
Some will say this spot should have gone to Blackfish. Unlike Blackfish, which exposed SeaWorld’s treatment of its killer whales, this film has no social agenda. But Cutie and the Boxer often goes deep, through artfully composed and emotionally rich close-ups of Noriko and Ushio, deep into their constant struggles and occasional triumphs.
Cutie and the Boxer is a longshot to win, but it is beautifully made.
20 Feet From Stardom
20 Feet From Stardom, directed by Morgan Neville, tells the story of the unheralded backup singers of some of the greatest pop singers and musical acts of the last 40 years. Which singers get the chance to sing up front, and which singers remain ’20 feet from stardom’?
You may not know their names, but you know their voices. Merry Clayton yells the line ‘it’s just a shot away’ during the chorus of the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter.” Mable John, Judith Hill (who was working with Michael Jackson when he died) and Darlene Love (who did break through after contributing to Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound) provide their first-hand accounts of helping to create some classic songs.
Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger weigh in on their backup singers. This is a heartfelt behind-the-scenes look at top-level talent.
Dirty Wars, directed by Richard Rowley, is an intense work about America’s covert war within the war on terror, secret operations that escape congressional oversight. Dirty Wars follows investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, as he follows the activities of JSOC, the Joint Special Forces Command that took down Osama bin Laden.
Dirty Wars alleges that JSOC has committed atrocities and operates far beyond the scope of our known operations.
It’s true that covert operation and drone strikes are up under President Obama, and the collateral damage of innocents killed is a legitimate concern for those of any political leaning. Especially when the innocents are children.
But Dirty Wars seemingly isn’t interested in a discussion about the JSOC operations or the root causes of this war on terror, with subject experts presenting opposing viewpoints. Scahill and Director Rowley lay it out as black and white.
Journalist Scahill is not new to this beat. For a decade, Scahill supplied some outstanding reporting about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also wrote the best-seller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Army. He’s obviously not afraid to get his hands dirty, reporting from many of the world’s most dangerous battle zones.
The cinematography is outstanding and there are many compelling sequences. But having covered the war on terror in my own documentaries, I know there is much more to the covert war than Scahill and director Rowley present, especially regarding the drone strike assassination of Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki as depicted in the film.
Al-Awlaki was the American-born imam of Yemeni descent who was a popular and western-friendly cleric in a Virginia mosque before expressing sympathy for the 9/11 hijackers. To its credit Dirty Wars includes this context.
But al-Awlaki morphed into an enemy combatant who actively recruited at a senior level for Al-Qaeda from his base in Yemen. He was linked to nearly 20 terror operations, including the attempt to blow up a Northwest airliner on Christmas Day in 2009. That context is not fully provided. Al-Awlaki was hardly just ‘another name struck off the list’ of enemy combatants, as Scahill paints it. Having said that, the fact that al-Awlaki’s teenage son was also targeted in a separate drone strike several weeks later is troubling.
Finally, some have felt that Dirty Wars focuses too much on Scahill as the conquering journalist. I can’t say I disagree. That’s unfortunate given the importance of the topic.
The Square is a remarkable, urgent, unforgettable work. A tour de force of documentary filmmaking. Few other films have ever shown war and revolution as viscerally. Director Jehane Noujaim, an Egyptian-American filmmaker, puts us on the ground and right into the action as the Egyptian Spring unfolds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011.
Noujaim’s cameras were seemingly everywhere, following among others Ahmed Hassan as his hopes are crushed by the realties of power and politics.
Police brutality is well-documented. To her credit, Noujaim keeps her cameras rolling as various factions grab for power. Saviors one day may be villains the next. The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power is put into context, and new president Morsi turns out to be as bad or worse than the deposed strongman Mubarak. Democracy doesn’t happen overnight, and it is still unfolding in Egypt.
The Act of Killing
It’s hard to describe The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. It’s a work like no other. The film looks at the mass executions of Communists and ethnic Chinese carried out in Indonesia beginning in the mid 1960s. Somehow, the filmmakers got the executioners to reenact their methods.
The film follows executioner Anwar Congo and his accomplice, gangster Herman Koto as they calmly and with pride show us where they killed their victims and how they did it. In a surreal sequence, one of many, Anwar, after showing us how he garroted his victims to minimize the blood and cleanup afterwards, celebrates with a dance.
And that’s just the beginning, as the killers’ reenactments take on an increasingly theatrical flourish and involve hundreds of contributors.
The final moments of The Act of Killing are unforgettable. No spoiler alerts here. This is bold and totally original filmmaking. Just see it.
This year’s films well represent the state of the art of documentary filmmaking. They take us to places we’ve never been. To people we would never meet. And, in the case of The Act of Killing, into scenarios we could never imagine.
Each film is deserving of recognition. In any other year The Square would probably win, and deservedly so. But in this most competitive field, I’d lean toward The Act of Killing, a most audacious work of art.
Kevin Knoblock has written, produced and directed numerous theatrically released and cable feature-length film documentaries. Knoblock’s feature-length documentaries include Border War: The Battle Over Illegal Immigration (released theatrically in over 50 theaters and recipient of multiple awards, including Best Documentary at AFR), Broken Promises: The United Nations at 60 (narrated by the late actor Ron Silver), and Nine Days That Changed the World (about Pope John Paul II’s historic nine-day pilgrimage to Poland in 1979).
He is a member of the Directors Guild of America. More information is on his website.
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