This was, overall, one of the weakest crop of docs to be nominated in many, many years. This does not diminish the craft and effort put in to them. It simply means that none of them reach the level of greatness we have grown accustomed to over the years. So was it a weak year for docs? Certainly not. There were plenty of tremendous films that, for some reason, were simply not chosen. For instance, none of these films reaches the artistic heights of “Jane”, “Kedi”, “Shadowman”, Ex Libris”, “LA92” or “All These Sleepless Nights”.
Ah well, gotta work with what we’ve got. Here are my reactions to the five nominees…
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” (USA)
Directed by Steve James
“Abacus” is an adequately made ‘David vs. Goliath’ procedural taking place after the mortgage bubble burst in 2009. While bailing out the biggest transgressors, the film chronicles the actions of the New York State District Attorney’s office against a small, Chinese family-owned bank A fascinating subject, the film, alas, fails in what I believe to be its main purpose…a damnation of the legal system choosing to go after a small, community bank, rather than the giant conglomerates. Originally broadcast as a PBS “Frontline” episode”. it feels like the television doc that it is. The actual sky high stakes are never provided with adequate dramatic tension. In fact, interesting and sympathetic as the family defendants are, their overarching belief in trusting in their actions and in the system means there is very little family drama to speak of. Add to that little or no cinematic attributes (score, cinematography, adequate three act structure) and you have a doc that is precisely where it belongs…on the televised medium of PBS.
This does not diminish its purpose. We NEED to see how the justice department screwed up in 2008-2009. And how they wildly missed the mark by going after a small community lender. In fact. its illustration of how important culturally connected service providers are in keeping their community businesses and families alive – and how they understand those communities in a way that the federal regulators just can not – is where its nominal strength lies.
You should walk away furious over the whole mess – y’know, like a nominated doc usually makes you feel. Instead, I left liking these people very much…and wondering why it was nominated.
“Faces Places” (France)
Directed by JR, Agnès Varda
I have not had such a violently negative reaction to a documentary in a long time. Oh…not talking about the subject or content of the film. I can see some BRUTAL imagery and, if done with purpose, have no trouble keeping my eyes open throughout. But when a film is as self-indulgent and self-reverential as “Faces Places”, it’s enough to make me seethe and become nauseous. I sat through it thinking, “no one told them that they are coming across as utterly patronizing to their subjects?! No one?!” Yes, the pictures are pretty, and yes it’s a wonderful framework for a documentary. But what should have been a lovely essay to the people of JR and Varda’s world (as it is during the twenty total seconds we are shown the reaction of the people who LIVE in these places), quite literally becomes a constant pat on the back JR and Varda give each other for their brilliance and cleverness…never mind that we don’t necessarily agree with them. I left knowing nothing of the inner workings of the artists’ mind…only how they wanted us to view them. The art was secondary. Tedious.
(For the record, I watched it a second time to see if maybe I was just in a crappy mood during my first viewing. Nope…I felt even more negatively about it a second time! Easily the most annoying nominated film of any type this season – except MAYBE “Greatest Showman”. Oy.)
Directed by Bryan Fogel
Yet another investigative documentary surrounding the use of steroids (a genre that has become quite tedious), “Icarus” director, Bryan Fogel, has placed himself front and center, much to the detriment of the film’s narrative. Granted, the original plot of the film (a study of how steroids affect one’s physiology – using the director as guinea pig) morphed due to events occurring during his initial filming, but I still found his inordinate amount of screen time (which included numerous shots of him shirtless or in bike gear) to be gratuitous, especially in contrast with the FASCINATING main character, a Russian doctor and Sport authority bigwig who also happens to be the mastermind behind the Olympic athlete drug scandal during the Socchi Olympics.
But even when the film surrounds the Grigory Rodchenkov, who, as head of the Russian anti-doping lab, was forced by his government to create the scheme by which they could get away with cheating, it fails to ignite as it should. It’s as if Fogel couldn’t decide what to make his film about. His multiple conversations with Rodchnkov seem extraneous, as if he feels that if he is not in each frame, it won’t be his film. More experienced documentarians would have honed in on the true protagonist more precisely, or rather, gotten out of the way past act one. But, for me, it utterly blocked my reception of the director’s intention.
But what do I know…it won the Oscar.
“Last Men In Aleppo” (Denmark/Syria)
Directed by Firas Fayyad
Picking up where last year’s Oscar winning short, “The White Helmets”, left off, “Last Men In Aleppo” is a devastatingly effective and affecting fly-on-the-wall perspective of the daily tragedies taking place in Aleppo, Syria. The short successfully introduced us to the courage and mission of the men who search for life under the rubble created by the constant bombardment of the Bashir’s regime and his Russian allied jets. But “Last Men” brings us inside the emotional toll, constant fear, and overriding consternation about whether one should stay or go for the sake of the children.
It is shot in front of, and over-the-shoulder of, two main “Helmets”. One, a single young man there with his brother solely to aid those that have no other form of aid. He is focused on his task, yet reticent to be acknowledged as some kind of hero. The other, a father of three, is more of a philosopher, constantly questioning the purpose of such an existence with not ounce less of courage. That he also finds the ability to laugh, love and attempt a normal existence makes him, in my eyes, even more courageous. It is this existential difference in how the two deal with the day-to-day that makes the film connect – turns it from being just another abject horror show and keeps it on track as an honest showcase of the worst human tragedy or our time – a showcase that will sadden, infuriate and baffle you.
The journalistic use of the camera…a faceless observer with no prevailing need to “get the shot” (since it is ALL the shot)…is used brilliantly and made even better by the tight, storytelling editing of Michael Bauer and Steen Johannessen. And without the courage of cinematographer and DP, Mujahed Abou Al Joud and Fadi Al Halabi, respectively, and AD, Hassan Kattan, these are images and emotions we would never otherwise be privy to. The most difficult doc of the nominated bunch by a mile, it will long outlast its current prominence in the award discussion since it will stand as a statement of record and evidence for decades to come. I highly, highly recommend it to all.
“Strong Island” (USA/Denmark)
Directed by Yance Ford
It’s been interesting to hear others reaction to this affecting and emotional film. Examining the circumstances surrounding the murder of his brother, director Yance Ford uses the film as an opportunity to have his family’s day in court…something they were not afforded in the deeply segregated suburb of Central Islip, Long Island. Using interviews with the family, shots of the important locations twenty years hence, personal reminiscences that are sometimes EXTREMELY painful, and a personal cinematic narrative style that is quite literally in-your-face, Ford had me riveted to the screen.
Of course, is the story itself is not told with actual detail, then it would easily fall apart. But it’s very well-documented story…with specifics communicated with more than a little bit of early Erroll Morris flair. Plus Ford’s use of framing, sound and editing shows an expertise that belies his lack of experience.
Now, due to the film’s style, some might say “stop telling me what’s so important…give me the opportunity to come to that conclusion on my own.” It is a fair response, and normally I would agree. Except “Island” survives on personal memory, rage and loss…all of which have little to do with objective fact. As a result, I didn’t mind it at all. In fact, for me, it’s the subjective intensity that elevates the film beyond the other four nominees.
If you’d like to go on an introspective journey of loss, tragedy, institutionalized racism and personal memory…and how they directly effect both subsequent actions and the artistic soul…then give it a go. It’s on Netflix.
POST-OSCARS UPDATE: As expected, “Icarus” walked away with the statuette. It’s Oscar campaign was among the most expensive ever for a documentary feature. Too bad. It would have been fourth on my list. I was lucky enough to chat with “Strong Island’s” creator, Yance Ford, on the Carpet and, as a fellow Long Islander, found him to be a very sincere and human soul. I wish it had pulled off the upset.
Here are the five trailers for the docs…in alphabetical order:
Written on 3/7/2018
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